TNO investigates relationship between nutrition, cognition and behaviour

TNO investigates relationship between nutrition, cognition and behavior“This research addresses major health issues”

Research on food, cognition and behavior is
hot. New insights in this area will facilitate the
development of foods and other interventions that
address major health issues in any stage of our
lives, including obesity, depression and mental
performance. The Dutch research organization TNO
supports food industry and health professionals via
an advanced, integrated research approach

‘The number of scientific publications concerning nutrition,
cognition and behavior has increased exponentially in the last
four decades”, says Dr Henk Hendriks, Senior Scientist at TNO.
The year 1970 saw only 225 publications on cognitive trials,
whereas 2012 had over 18,000. For trials specifically addressing
food and cognition the number increased from nil in 1970 to
almost 300 in 2012. “Thanks to the development of advanced
MRI and PET we are gaining more and more insights into brain
function and how the brain interacts with other organs and with
external stimuli such as nutrition”, he says.
Health impact
Nutrition and other interventions that affect cognition and
behavior could have a major societal and health impact. “If
we understand how the brain affects the mechanisms behind
food liking and wanting, and hunger and satiety, we can more
effectively help people make the healthy choice the easy
choice”, explains Hendriks. “This will help reduce the high
incidence of obesity and associated diseases like diabetes and
neurodegenerative disorders in industrialized countries, and
thereby reduce medical costs for society.”
Nutrition might also be beneficial in cases of depression – very
common in western industrialized countries – and in optimizing
mental and emotional performance, an area that is linked to
brain development in children and adolescents as well as
maintenance of brain function with ageing.
“There is more and more evidence that metabolic imprinting
during early development of an individual is directly related to
health and disease later in life”, explains Dr Didima de Groot,
Senior Research Scientist at TNO. “This phenomenon is called
‘Fetal Origin of Adult Health and Disease’ and implies that
intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli early in life – even before mating –
determine the health status of an individual through adulthood
and even far beyond.”
The brain plays a major role in the processes underlying this
phenomenon. Due to its plasticity and occurrence of stem cells
the brain can adopt life-long to new circumstances and so, the
brain can protect itself against unwanted developments and
moreover ‘feed itself’ enabling positive adaptation to a new
“Food can increase vulnerability to negative environmental
stimuli like stress, or chemicals and drugs in the environment,
but due to the latter capacity proper food ingredients can
reduce this vulnerability as well, and have positive effects on
mental health”, says De Groot.
Recent studies have revealed an important relationship
between nutrition and cognition, and depression and behavior,
with omega-3-fatty acids, polyphenols, vitamin D and glucose
(derivatives) having key roles. “We also know that nutritional
effects on brain development start at a very early stage in
life: before birth”, says Wim van Hartingsveldt, Business
Development Manager Food and Health at TNO. “During
pregnancy and the months after birth, infants usually undergo
very rapid brain development. This implies that especially
the composition and timing of nutrition should be adequately
programmed. The omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaoenic acid
(DHA), for example, is vital for brain development and should
always be present in infant nutrition.”
Promising new market
Some food multinationals are already anticipating enormous
market opportunities in the area of nutrition, cognition and
behavior. The US-based company Accera and the Dutch
manufacturer Nutricia, for example, recently launched medical
foods (Axona and Souvenaid respectively) aimed at mitigating
the symptoms in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. A few
years ago the Dutch ingredient specialist DSM filed a patent
for the sugar substitute stevia as a cognitive health ingredient.
Some years earlier DSM also launched a palm- and oat-oil
based ingredient for appetite control (Fabuless).
Until now, however, it has been impossible for food
manufacturers to substantiate product or ingredient healthclaims
concerning food, cognition and behavior. “The
relationship is complex and dependent on many closelyinteracting
factors. Moreover, the benefits ‘pay off’ far later
in life. This makes is very difficult to prove causal and doseeffect
relationships”, says Van Hartingsveldt. “The subtle direct
effects of nutrition compared to, for example, pharmaceuticals,

do not yet fully understand how satiety hormones and other
mediators (could) affect behavior and thus food choice.”
Integrated approach
When we consider the huge potential impact on science,
society and industry, for TNO to invest in research on nutrition,
cognition and behavior is a ‘no-brainer’. “Our mission is to help
solve major societal issues”, explains Hendriks. “Moreover,
few organizations can offer the broad expertise and innovative
research mentality needed to generating new insights in this
Studying nutrition, cognition and behavior requires an
integrated approach, in which behavioral and physiological
assessment techniques are combined with measurements of
brain activity and mental performance. “Integrating different
techniques allows us to understand, and make visible, subtle
effects of nutrition in a relatively short period of time”, explains
Van Hartingsveldt.
TNO’s expertise ranges from nutrigenomics, human studies
and animal models, to in vitro and in silico modeling, tracer and
non-invasive technology, food ingredients and food technology.
The organization has a strong track-record in developing and
combining leading-edge technologies, and its creativity in finding
new ways to apply existing techniques.
Measuring cognitive performance
“In cognition and behavior we make use of both standardized
Neurobehavioral Evaluation System (NES) tests and new
combinations of online testing and imaging. We can couple
these experiments to cohort, field and intervention studies”, says
Van Hartingsveldt. “We can simulate a wide range of situations
in many different target groups, from infants to elderly, from
athletes to the infirm. For example, we can study an individual’s
performance under specific stresses via the challenge-test.”
Challenge-tests, a concept codeveloped by TNO, measure
the level of health and wellbeing in people who feel and appear
healthy. Based on the body’s response to ordinary loads such
as light stress or a minor infection, and the subsequent recovery
after such a load, the challenge-approach helps to make subtle
nutrition effects tangible.
An advanced approach for screening of cognitive development
in infants and children, known as the D-score, was recently
developed at TNO. The method has been validated and
outcomes are proved to be independent of ethnic background.
It can be used on children and as a non-invasive instrument in
animal studies. The test allows experts to predict, in children of
two years of age, their cognitive performance at the age of five.
TNO’s ambition is to establish technological breakthroughs
that enable screening of bioactive compounds and noninvasive
measurements of nutrition, cognition and behavior.
“We are building a consortium to support food manufacturers
in every stage of product development, from screening of novel
ingredients to clinical trials”, says Van Hartingsveldt.
Appetite control
During the last few years, TNO’s research on nutrition, cognition
and behavior has delivered promising results. One pioneering
study, completed early in 2012, included a collaboration
project with Wageningen University & Research centre. The
study focused on the role of endocannabinoids – compounds
with many signaling functions in the body – in hunger and
satiety. “The project has resulted in a screening platform for
endocannabinoids and in the identification of new molecules
with possible roles in the modulation of hunger and satiety”
says Hendriks. “We will also develop a TIM Satiety in vitro
gastrointestinal model that will allow the screening of bioactive
components for appetite control. This model will significantly
reduce screening times.”
Another project, underway for a year within the public-private
partnership TI Food and Nutrition, aims to identify new targets
for hunger and satiety in the intestine. “Detection (by the body)
of fats, carbohydrates and proteins triggers the production of
signal molecules and satiety hormones, such as CCK, GLP-1
and PYY, in the gastrointestinal tract. The hormones are released
into the blood circulation and travel to the brain to induce the
feeling of satiety”, Hendriks explains. “In this project we want
to find out how these substrates are recognized in the intestine,
and learn precisely what triggers the release of signal molecules
and satiety hormones.”
Cognitive development
A groundbreaking cognitive development project includes a
study on malnutrition during pregnancy and its effect on brain
development in infants. “We simulated the famine situation
that took place in the Dutch winter of 1944, the Hongerwinter:
calorie restriction during the mother’s pregnancy term followed
by a calorie rich diet after birth”, says De Groot, as Senior
Research Scientist involved in the project. “The study showed
that infant rats were, like the generation of people born after the
Hongerwinter, more prone to become overweight and develop
other metabolic diseases (diabetes). They also appeared to be
more vulnerable to the negative effects to the toxic potency of
methylmercury in the environment and were predisposed to
cognitive disorders including schizophrenia.” The results are
being submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific
De Groot and colleagues are now planning a study with piglets
– an animal model that was recently proven to closely resemble
man – to investigate the role of specific food components,
dosage and timing on early brain development. “We will be using
the D-Score as a measure for global cognitive development
combined with a range of techniques, from non-invasive
methods like sensor and imaging to monitor dynamic processes
over time, to nutrigenomics for investigation of underlying
responsible processes and pathways. The study should provide
leads for further optimization of infant nutrition”, says De Groot.
TNO is now attracting industry partners to participate in the
Making a difference
According to Hendriks, Van Hartingsveldt and De Groot, within
five to ten years research, industry will have vastly-improved
tools for investigating nutrition, cognition and behavior, making
possible step-changes in knowledge and product development.
“We will have a much better understanding of how nutrition and
food ingredients affect eating behavior. This will support the
industry to develop foods that modulate hunger and satiety”,
says Hendriks. “
The research will also have an enormous impact on cognitive
development, believes De Groot: “The majority of behavioral
issues have their origins in early brain development. Though
there is still a lot to investigate in this area, it is clear that
nutrition might make a major difference.”
TNO research program
TNO’s work on cognition and behavior is part of the
organization’s research strategy on Food and Health. One of
the goals is to develop methods for the short-term assessment
of the health effects of food products and to establish groundbreaking
methodologies for the substantiation and assessment
of health claims; methodologies that will be adopted in the
Netherlands and abroad. The organization collaborates with
respected universities and research institutes in the Netherlands,
Europe and the United States. For more information, please
contact Henk Hendriks, or wim.
make the situation even more challenging.” Hendriks gives an
example: “To modulate hunger and satiety we are searching
for the connection between the release of well-known satiety
hormones and feelings of hunger and satiety. Moreover, we