UNSW medical researchers have for the first time demonstrated that "comfort eating" can reverse the effects in the brain of psychological trauma experienced early in life.

Eating palatable food rich in fat and sugar can alter the chemical composition in the brain and ameliorate anxiety-like behaviour induced in early life, the researchers from the School of Medical Sciences found.

The results are further evidence of the plasticity of the brain and its ability to re-map neural networks. A paper detailing the work appears this month in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

"What's exciting about this is that we are able to reverse a behavioural deficit that was caused by a traumatic event early in life, simply through a dietary intervention," said Professor of Pharmacology Margaret Morris.

In the study, lab rats were divided into groups and either isolated from their mothers for controlled periods of time to induce stress or given normal maternal contact.

In addition to being more anxious, animals that were subjected to stress early in life had higher levels of stress hormones, and fewer steroid receptors in the part of the brain controlling behaviour. Both the anxious behavior and the levels of hormones in these rats were reversed with the introduction of high-fat foods, Professor Morris said.

"Many neurological diseases appear to have their origins early in life. Stress hormones definitely affect the way nerve cells grow in the brain. This discovery may be giving us a clue about a different way to tackle a range of conditions that affect mood and behaviour," she said.

"Eating palatable food seems to affect neurogenesis similar to the way anti-depressants promote nerve growth in the brain. We need to test this possibility more, and trial other interventions such as exercise," Professor Morris said.

The study forms part of the PhD work of Jayanthi Maniam and was funded by an ARC Discovery Grant.

Media contact: Steve Offner | 02 9385 8107 | s.offner@unsw.edu.au