To better understand how diet influences brain aging, we focus here on the presymptomatic period during which prevention may be most effective. Large-scale life span neuroimaging datasets show functional communication between brain regions destabilizes with age, typically starting in the late 40s, and that destabilization correlates with poorer cognition and accelerates with insulin resistance. Targeted experiments show that this biomarker for brain aging is reliably modulated with consumption of different fuel sources: Glucose decreases, and ketones increase the stability of brain networks. This effect replicated across both changes to total diet as well as fuel-specific calorie-matched bolus, producing changes in overall brain activity that suggest that network “switching” may reflect the brain’s adaptive response to conserve energy under resource constraint.Abstract
Epidemiological studies suggest that insulin resistance accelerates progression of age-based cognitive impairment, which neuroimaging has linked to brain glucose hypometabolism. As cellular inputs, ketones increase Gibbs free energy change for ATP by 27% compared to glucose. Here we test whether dietary changes are capable of modulating sustained functional communication between brain regions (network stability) by changing their predominant dietary fuel from glucose to ketones. We first established network stability as a biomarker for brain aging using two large-scale (n = 292, ages 20 to 85 y; n = 636, ages 18 to 88 y) 3 T functional MRI (fMRI) datasets. To determine whether diet can influence brain network stability, we additionally scanned 42 adults, age < 50 y, using ultrahigh-field (7 T) ultrafast (802 ms) fMRI optimized for single-participant-level detection sensitivity. One cohort was scanned under standard diet, overnight fasting, and ketogenic diet conditions. To isolate the impact of fuel type, an independent overnight fasted cohort was scanned before and after administration of a calorie-matched glucose and exogenous ketone ester (d-β-hydroxybutyrate) bolus. Across the life span, brain network destabilization correlated with decreased brain activity and cognitive acuity. Effects emerged at 47 y, with the most rapid degeneration occurring at 60 y. Networks were destabilized by glucose and stabilized by ketones, irrespective of whether ketosis was achieved with a ketogenic diet or exogenous ketone ester. Together, our results suggest that brain network destabilization may reflect early signs of hypometabolism, associated with dementia. Dietary interventions resulting in ketone utilization increase available energy and thus may show potential in protecting the aging brain.