Effects of Western Diet on Cognition in Rodents - Scientia Professor Fred Westbrook

What is this research about?

The diet eaten by many people in Australia and other developed countries is rich in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates. It has been known for some time that excessive intake of this so-called western diet leads to increases in body weight, even obesity, and a range of adverse health effects.

More recent evidence has linked this diet with cognitive deficits across the lifespan. Laboratory rats, like people, avidly consume this diet, become overweight and develop a range of adverse health effects. They also exhibit cognitive deficits, particularly in tasks that require the hippocampus and surrounding cortices. Moreover, these deficits occur rapidly, well in advance of increases in body weight and associated changes in health.

The project uses laboratory rodents to study the effects of a western style diet on cognition. It has three aims.

The first is to examine whether the cognitive deficits induced by short or long exposures to the diet are correlated with changes in neuroinflammatory and neurogenic markers in the hippocampus and in gut microbiota responses. The second is to assess ways of preventing or reversing the cognitive deficits, while the final aim is to determine the contributions of fat versus sugar to the cognitive deficits and associated molecular changes.

Other researchers involved:

Professor Margaret Morris (School of Medical Sciences)

Publications relating to this research:

Tran, D., & Westbrook, R. F. (2015). A diet rich in fats and sugars impairs the use of spatial geometry. Psychological Science, 26, 1947–1957.

Reichelt, A. C., Morris, M. J., & Westbrook, R. F. (2016). Daily access to sucrose impairs aspects of spatial memory tasks reliant on pattern separation and neural proliferation in rats. Learning and Memory, 23, 7, 386-390.

Kaakoush, N., O, Martire, S. I., Raipuria, M., Mitchell, H. M., Nielsen, S., Westbrook, R. F., Morris, M. J. (2017). Alternating between cafeteria and chow diets is sufficient to shift the gut microbiota towards an obese phenotype. Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, 61, 1-9


Morris, M. J., & Westbrook, R. F. The effects of a western diet on cognition in rats. NH&MRC project grant (2017-2019).


To find out more about this research, please contact Scientia Professor Fred Westbrook