High-fructose corn syrup is a grocery store staple, an inexpensive additive found in everything from soda to spaghetti sauce. We already know that diets heavy in it are a likely road to obesity and diabetes, but according to a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health, fructose may also be doing widespread damage to our genes. The study is the first to examine all of the gene networks affected by fructose that result in changes to brain function and metabolism–more than 20,000 genes in total. Although the study was conducted using rats, the researchers report that the majority of the sequenced genes are comparable to those in humans, including more than 200 genes in the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to memory, and 700 in the hypothalamus, the seat of the brain’s metabolic control center. When genes in the brain are disrupted by fructose, say the researchers, a host of health badness is on the horizon. According to Xia Yang, co-senior author of the study and a UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology, “Parkinson’s disease, depression, bipolar disorder and other brain diseases” are all potential outcomes from gene disruptions caused by fructose.
The UCLA researchers reported that they were able to identify the mechanism by which fructose damages genes in the brain. By altering one of the four nucleotides that make up DNA, diets high in fructose trigger the genes’ “on” or “off” switch, altering their function. Previous rat studies have shown similar gene-altering results, though the research hasn’t yet been replicated in humans.