•A processed-foods diet (PD) impaired learning and memory in aged male rats.
•PD increased inflammatory genes in the hippocampus and amygdala of aged rats.
•DHA supplementation prevented memory deficits in PD-fed aged rats.
•DHA supplementation ameliorated increases in inflammatory gene expression.
•PD consumption led to increased weight gain in young and aged rats.
The consumption of a processed foods diet (PD) enriched with refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and lack of fiber has increased in recent decades and likely contributed to increased incidence of chronic disease and weight gain in humans. These diets have also been shown to negatively impact brain health and cognitive function in rodents, non-human primates, and humans, potentially through neuroimmune-related mechanisms. However, mechanisms by which PD impacts the aged brain are unknown. This gap in knowledge is critical, considering the aged brain has a heightened state of baseline inflammation, making it more susceptible to secondary challenges. Here, we showed that consumption of a PD, enriched with refined carbohydrate sources, for 28 days impaired hippocampal- and amygdalar-dependent memory function in aged (24 months), but not young (3 months) F344 × BN rats.
These memory deficits were accompanied by increased expression of inflammatory genes, such as IL-1β, CD11b, MHC class II, CD86, NLRP3, and complement component 3, in the hippocampus and amygdala of aged rats. Importantly, we also showed that when the same PD is supplemented with the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid DHA, these memory deficits and inflammatory gene expression changes were ameliorated in aged rats, thus providing the first evidence that DHA supplementation can protect against memory deficits and inflammatory gene expression in aged rats fed a processed foods diet. Lastly, we showed that while PD consumption increased weight gain in both young and aged rats, this effect was exaggerated in aged rats. Aging was also associated with significant alterations in hypothalamic gene expression, with no impact by DHA on weight gain or hypothalamic gene expression. Together, our data provide novel insights regarding diet-brain interactions by showing that PD consumption impairs cognitive function likely through a neuroimmune mechanism and that dietary DHA can ameliorate this phenomenon.