Fasting and the Brain: The 5 takeaway’s from Dr. Mark Mattson’s Genius Lecture

Written By Tina O

Two Dr. Mark Mattson Videos: TEDx and his acceptance speech at the 18th International Congress of the German Medical Association for Fasting and Nutrition


Mark Mattson, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and former Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging, gives a lecture on how the brain and body adapt to intermittent bioenergetic challenges after being presented with the Maria Buchinger Foundation award at the 18th International Congress of the German Medical Association for Fasting and Nutrition (ÄGHE).

Here’s our top 5 takeaways from his TEDx lecture:

1. Evolutionary fasting has been around for a long time! Dr. Mark Mattson points out that throughout  history “many famous people with good brains” have fasted regularly.  Plato: “I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency“ and Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), known as Mark Twain, wrote: “a little starvation can really do more for the average sick man than can the best medicines and the best doctors.”



2. He presents a strong case showing that fasting improves cognitive function and helps prevent brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Stroke(s) typically found in older people. He adds that, if we make no interventions/lifestyle changes we’re likely to have 3 times as many people with these conditions in 2050.

3. According to Dr. Mattson, even a shorter fast (8hr) is enough to get some of the benefits of longer fasts as a switch of  energy metabolism from metabolizing sugar to fat occurs. These be benefits are enhanced with certain types of exercise.

4. Fasting benefits are far reaching as they affect many different systems in our body.  Dr. Mattson shows on how fasting positively affects blood chemistry, liver function, the intestines, brain, heart, fat cells and muscle!



5. Dr Mattson says: Reducing energy intake increases lifespan in mice by 30-40%! WOW!

6.  “The main take home message of this talk, is that fasting is a challenge to your brain. And your brain responds to the challenge of not having food by activating adaptive stress response pathways that help your brain cope with stress, and resist disease.”


Who is Dr. Mark Mattson?

  • Dr. Mark P. Mattson is a Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University.  He is also the former Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging
  • In one of Rhonda Patrick’s episodes she states: “Dr. Mark Mattson is one of the most cited neuroscientists in the world, with more than 180,000 citations of his work noted in the scientific literature.”

The Brain on Fasting

  • Look at this chart:  As you can see, Neurons are generated from stem cells.



  • Neurons  grow out the axons and dendrites and form connections with each other (synapses). Synapses communicate with each other .
  • Fasting increases  Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor BDNF . Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is a secretory growth factor that supports the survival of existing neurons and promotes synaptogenesis and differentiation of new neurons (Park and Poo, 2013).



  • BDNF is a growth factor that strengthens Synapses, and the growth of neurons. (10:50 min another chart showing specifically this).
  • BDNF helps improve your brain and prevent Alzheimer’s .
  • Fasting presents a challenge to the brain (chart showing this and BDNF at 9:55 min), and the brain responds by activating adaptive stress pathways that help the brain cope with stress and resistance.



  • Fasting Increases mitochondria in nerve cells (the same as exercising increases mirochondria in the muscle. By increasing mitochondria in neurons,  Intermittent Fasting will enhance the ability of nerve cells to repair DNA.
  • An interesting Fact: Romans utilized a ketone diet for people with “demons “ (epileptic seizures ) 11:40 has a slide showing this and Ketogenic diets (due to their fast mimicking nature) are being used even today to treat epilepsy.




Additional Effects of Fasting

  • Brain: Intermittent fasting (IF) improved cognitive function, increased neurotrophic factors, and increased stress resistance as well as reducing inflammation.
  • Blood: IF decreased insulin IGF-Leptin as well as increased ketones.
  • Liver: IF increased insulin sensitivity, ketone body production
  • Intestines: IF reduced energy intake, inflammation and cell proliferation.
  • Heart: IF reduced resting heart rate, reduced blood pressure and increased stress resistance.
  • Fat cells: IF increased lipolysisis,  the metabolic process through which triacylglycerols (TAGs) break down via hydrolysis into their constituent molecules. Reducing  Glycerol and free fatty acids and leptin and reduced inflammation.
  • Muscle:  IF increased insulin sensitivity, Increased efficiency, Reduced inflammation


“How Brain and Body adapt to intermittent Bioenergetic challenge”:



  • Dr. Mark Mattson discusses Ketones, signaling functions, increased stress resistance and enhancing growth and plasticity of Cells during the recover / feeding phase .
  • Dr. Mattson points out that Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) stimulates an increase in the number of mitochondria in individual nerve cells.
  • Mice with Alzheimer’s disease (Amyloid Plaque and Tangles as well as Synaptic Dysfunction) have benefited by alternate day fasting and their learning and memory is preserved.
  • Alzheimer’s patients have less ability than normal people to use glucose for fuel in the brain.
  • Ketones can nourish the brain in Alzheimer’s patients. Also ketones are a clean source of fuel and the brain likes them.
  • Anxiety in mice has been shown to decrease with intermittent fasting (it appears to work in a similar way as diazepam)
  • This chart is a very good chart that  shows the mechanisms of action in a clear simplified way. Such a relief to my non – scientific brain lol .(41:28) This chart shows the metabolic switching that occurs during the fasting and recovery phase. What is interesting to me is it clearly shows the recovery phase (eating, sleeping) is important as well!
  • This chart also shows the long term adaptations that occur from Intermittent fasting.



  • In the video we are discussing, the term “Intermittent fasting “ which covers a wide variety of time windows. For the studies, mostly  alternate day fasting, 5/2 and daily Time Restricted Eating are used.
  • This chart shows a brief overview of 3 studies in humans.  I will describe briefly but Mark describes the studies in-depth much better in the video.



    • First study listed discusses ADF in overweight patients with moderate asthma. The clinical findings show reduced markers of oxidative stress and inflammation.
    • Second study in chart: Young overweight women ate only 600 calories on 2 consecutive days. Over 6 months the lost weight, reduced abdominal fat, and increased insulin sensitivity. (Interesting that Mark points out 600 cals is not enough to maintain glycogen stores) Mark says “a producer of the BBC did a documentary and wrote a book about this“ and I think he is talking about this one, but not sure.
    • Third Study listed : “A Trial of Intermittent fasting subjects at risk for cognitive impairment.” Ages 55-70 overweight and insulin resistant. Markers used: Psychological tests, Structural and functional MRI, MRS Spectroscopy (GABA, Glutamate, energy metabolism markers, Cerebrospinal fluid (BDNF),Plasma energy, ANS function (heart rate variability). (OMG Can I PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE be in this study?!)


To help understand more fasting affects on the brain, I have pulled a few quotes and excerpts from an article titled “FOUR WAYS FASTING MAY HELP YOUR BRAIN” which discusses Mark Mattson’s work.

What fasting does to the brain: Four ways it may help brain health

  • In mankind’s past, “Individual brains had to function very well in a food-deprived state. Otherwise, they’re not going to be successful in acquiring food.”
  • “One thing we found pretty recently that may explain the ability of intermittent fasting to reduce levels of anxiety and also protect against a number of neurological disorders, is that intermittent fasting will enhance the ability of nerve cell networks to control their activities and electrochemical activity.”


IN CONCLUSION ALL I CAN SAY IS WOW WOW WOW! You have to listen to these videos and look at the charts!

The Maria Buchinger Foundation Award presented to Mattson is in honor of Maria Buchinger, also known as the “Grande Dame” of Fasting. Here’s more about her story:


Here are some other fasting resources you might be interested in:

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