Lori Anderson: Hooked on fish

I wonder if viewers who survived the transfer from BBC’s Newsnight Scotland to Scotland 2014 have picked up on the subtle difference I’ve spotted.
Studies show that people who eat fish have larger brains. Picture: Julie BullStudies show that people who eat fish have larger brains. Picture: Julie Bull
Studies show that people who eat fish have larger brains. Picture: Julie Bull

Let’s set aside the fact that Sarah Smith, unlike her predecessor Gordon Brewer, doesn’t have glasses with which to gesticulate and poke home her point, I’m talking about the admirable absence of fish.

Perhaps I was unlucky with the nights I stayed up to watch Newsnight’s northern neighbour but whenever I did I would be greeted with shots of shimmering, ice-packed haddock and herring, aquatic harbingers of an endless debate over fishing quotas.

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The new show lacks this distinctive aroma: it’s as if the producer whose sole contribution to the daily conference was to shout “FISH” has been lost overboard.

Like a true contrarian, I may live to regret his departure as my interest in shoals have been piqued recently.

For the first time in my life I’m considering playing the part of Top Cat and littering my outside bins with skeletal fishy detritus.

I would like to point out that I won’t be tucking in to tantalise my tastebuds as I’ve always found fish rather tasteless, like clouds of the sea, evaporating on my tongue into bland nothingness.

The actual reason why I may finally choke down fish once a week, like a fussy seal, is to have a bigger, healthier brain and you may like to consider doing so too.

A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by Dr Cyrus Raji, resident radiologist at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that people who eat fish have larger brains than those who don’t.

The type of fish didn’t appear to matter, nor did the frequency of its appearance on one’s plate, so long as it was at least once a week.

The health benefits were the same for those who dine on cod once a week as for those who feast on sushi every night.

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What was crucial, however, and of considerable concern to Scots, was the method of preparation as the fish had to be eaten raw, boiled or baked but never fried, which scores out the idea of a medicinal fish supper.

The benefits to the brain of a weekly serving of cod in parsley sauce or baked sea bream with garlic and rosemary to a hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning – is 14 per cent larger than those who don’t dine on the gifts of the sea.

As Dr Raji said: “That has implications for reducing Alzheimer’s risk. If you have a stronger hippocampus, your risk of Alzheimer’s is going to go down.”

It is not only the hippocampus that seems to feed off fish, the orbital frontal cortex, the area whose multiple tasks include reasoning and problem solving, is 4 per cent larger in weekly seafood connoisseurs.

Dr Raji’s study has been unable to hook a direct cause-and-effect between a specific element of eating fish and a bigger brain.

He and his team had thought that the increase in the hippocampus and orbital frontal cortex could be the result of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish as these have previously been shown to slow cognitive decline. Rats fed a diet low in omega-3 show increased signs of dementia.

Omega-3 fatty acids also contain docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid which are thought to positively alter the way neural synapses fire and increase overall brain volume. However, when people were tested there was no direct correlation between the levels of omega-3 in their blood and their bigger brains.

Yet the study took into account a whole range of other possible factors such as obesity, education, age, gender, race and levels of physical activity and discarded each one until the unifying factor between those with bigger brains was eating fish.

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As Dr Raji explained: “Something about fish consumption, whatever it is, is strengthening to the brain. It’s also possible that we’re capturing a general lifestyle effect – that there’s something else out there we’re not measuring that’s accounting for this.”

The evidence can be confusing, because if you look at nations in which fish is a considerable part of the average diet, they have different rates of dementia.

In Japan, the rate is low, however, in Iceland it is on par with the United States.

For me, considering making fish a weekly part of my diet makes sense if measured on the scale of risk versus reward.

While I may not find fish to be the tastiest of meals, it certainly can’t do me any harm and the reward of a bigger brain and a thicker barrier against the onslaught of dementia could only be an invaluable reward.