Can junk food really change the way our brains work?

May 18, 2016
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Hijacked is in Principal Partnership with TEDxYouth@Sydney this year so stay tuned for more pre-event, live, and post-event coverage.

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The startling truth about what our diets do to our minds will be revealed next week when RMIT neuroscience lecturer and ARC Research Fellow, Amy Reichelt, takes the stage at TEDxYouth@Sydney.

This year’s lineup sports a slew of young innovators, activists, entrepreneurs and go-getters and is designed to inspire ideas worth spreading. Hijacked sat down with Amy to talk shop about making a career out of science and to learn more about how the brain controls our behaviour.

The path to a career in research

For Amy, the fact that her life path led to a career in science wasn’t particularly shocking. “I was always really interested in science when I was a kid and at school. I wanted to know how things worked”, she says. “At uni, I took an interest in psychology and how the brain works... when I graduated psych, I just really wanted to carry on doing research.”

One PhD in behavioural neuroscience later, and Amy isn’t looking back. “It’s fun, it’s interesting, and it’s a challenge. Every day there’s something new to think about.”

What I’ve actually found is that our environment and our experiences shape our brains and not just how we react to things… it’s all changing.

Amy’s key findings to date

Amy's research highlight to date? A comprehensive look at how dopamine affects the way our memories form, change, shift, and how they are recollected. “To me it felt novel and really exciting, and it was cool to be able to do this research,” she says.

“What I’ve actually found is that our environment and our experiences shape our brains and not just how we react to things… it’s all changing. So our brains are actually really dynamic. I find it really surprising and really fundamental that our brains not only control our behaviour, but our everyday life is affecting our brains. It’s a kind of mixture.”

… but there’s still so much work to be done

In her upcoming TEDxYouth@Sydney talk, Amy’s slated to address how modern day diets full of junk foods can change our brains besides just making us overweight. We weren’t allowed to get the inside scoop on her talk’s specific content, but we sure did learn a thing or two about the field of neuroscience in general.

“There’s still so much work to be done and there are so many elements people are trying to put together. It’s not one whole - you can take it apart down to individual neurons and cells in the brain, and then to molecules, and how they work and change the brain.”

And Amy certainly hasn’t lost sight of what’s most important in the study of human beings. “It’s not just the cellular side of things, but what makes us conscious, and what part of the brain is responsible for personality traits. It’s finding out how the brain makes us who we are.”

There’s still so much work to be done and there are so many elements people are trying to put together.

How does Amy feel about speaking in front of thousands of people?

We couldn’t help but ask: is Amy nervous about her upcoming talk? Definitely. “I’m talking to such a big audience who are not experts in these kind of fields, and the location of [the Joan Sutherland Theatre] at the Sydney Opera House is kind of intimidating,” she says. “It’s really exciting, but daunting at the same time.”

This just goes to show that no matter how much you study the brain and human behaviour, public speaking still gets to the best of us.

Jonathan Davidson

Jonathon is studying journalism at Murdoch University in Perth.

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Amy Reichelt's full TEDxYouth talk will be available following her May 25 address. Click here to learn more about this year's lineup.

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