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The Brain, Neurons and Brain Chemistry

Author(s): Nancy P. Moreno, PhD, Barbara Z. Tharp, MS, and Tadzia GrandPré, PhD

Reading Food Labels

The brain needs many different kinds of nutrients. Glucose, a kind of sugar, is the main source of energy for the brain. While all carbohydrates can serve as sources of glucose, some are better than others. Breads, pastas, cereals and other foods made with whole grains provide the brain with steady supplies of glucose. Foods that contain white sugar or corn syrup, white rice, white flour (found in white bread and most cakes, crackers and cookies) and other refined carbohydrates also supply energy. However, they cause glucose levels in the bloodstream to rise rapidly and then crash. 

Proteins from food provide the amino acids used to make neurotransmitter molecules. Meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs and beans (including soy beans) are good sources of proteins. The cell membranes of neurons are made of fats. The healthiest fats are liquid at room temperature. Olive, flaxseed and canola oils are examples of healthy fats. In addition, oils from coldwater fish, such as mackerel, salmon and trout are good sources of a kind of fat needed to build cell membranes in the brain. 

Minerals such as calcium, sodium and potassium are vital for the generation and conduction of electrical impulses in neurons and are involved in the release of neurotransmitters from axon terminals. Vitamins are essential molecules needed in small amounts by cells throughout the body, including neurons. For example, choline, a vitamin found in egg yolks and leafy green vegetables, is the basis for the chemical messenger, acetylcholine, that transmits signals to muscles.

The diets of many adolescents are high in sugars and unhealthy fats. In addition, the “super-sized portions” of snack and fast foods eaten by many students supply too many calories. Calories measure the amount of energy provided by food. They can be obtained from the breakdown of many different kinds of molecules, particularly fats, carbohydrates and proteins. The body needs a certain amount of calories each day as fuel.

Excess calories are stored as body fat. Unfortunately, even though many American children consume several times the amount of calories they actually need, they are not supplying their bodies with nutrients needed for optimum growth and development.

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Funded by the following grant(s)

NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research Science Education Award, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and NIH Office of the Director

The Learning Brain: Interactive Inquiry for Teachers and Students
Grant Number: 5R25DA033006


Science Education Partnership Award, NIH

Filling the Gaps: K-6 Science/Health Education
Grant Number: 5R25RR013454