Like many Italians, my memories of my family and childhood are inseparable from memories of food. But it’s also true that my memories of my family and childhood are tied to nuclear physics. Both my parents are nuclear physicists (yes, like Einstein) doing research at the University of Florence, where I grew up.
Unlike Einstein, my parents are rather the perfect representation of the Mediterranean lifestyle. They walk more than they drive, take the stairs instead of the elevator, favor green time over screen time, explicitly enjoy taking naps, and of course, they love to eat. My mamma e papa showed me the way around the research lab, but most of our time was spent in the kitchen.
Scientists bring their curiosity and experimentation to their meals, and their children bring even more of both. By the age of 6, I was using the stove to ask questions. Eggs: why do they burn when cooked without oil? Milk: what happens if I just keep boiling it? My earliest experiments had more to do with chemistry than with taste, but by 10 years old I was perfectly capable of preparing my own meals. A little olive oil, a slice of good bread, a sun-ripened tomato, and off you go. Mediterranean cuisine isn’t pretentious; it’s simple, nutritious, and flavorful.
Really, though, it was my grandmother who taught me to actually cook. And over time, tragically, she taught me something else. She grew up in the hardship of wartime Italy, her husband a POV in a German camp, and everything that came after. Yet nothing broke her strength until much later in her life: the onset of dementia.
So it was that our small world in Florence formed me: the research labs of my physicist parents, the kitchen we shared with my grandma, and witnessing and caring for the effects of dementia on my grandmother. In retrospect, it feels inevitable that my interests would try to connect these dots of hard science, nutrition, and brain health.
By the age of 24, I was applying my dual PhD (in neuroscience and nuclear medicine, which in my case, is code for brain imaging) to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease at the University of Florence. At the age of 25, I became an immigrant in New York, to continue my work at the NYU School of Medicine.
It is here in New York that I experienced firsthand the clear and personal effects that diet can have on your mental capacities. All my life, I had eaten a traditional Mediterranean diet: whole grains, legumes, fish, olive oil, and tons of vegetables and fruit. Suddenly I was in the land of burgers and frozen pizza, Big Gulps and frappucino’s, and brightly colored foods that didn’t really look or taste like food.
Within a few months, I’d put on an unprecedented amount of weight, but worse, I felt incredibly tired and foggy-brained. I was used to spending hours studying and reading, but now my attention span was reduced to 40 minutes at best. I found myself running the same analyses over and over again and not being able to retain the information. The irony that I was researching cognitive decline wasn’t lost on me.
Still a scientist, I began to wonder if the grocery list had something to do with my rapidly deteriorating performance. For all the studies on brain science and health, I’d been taught nothing about brain nutrition. It simply wasn’t part of the curriculum.
I was back on my feet almost as soon as I returned to my Mediterranean roots. The personal experience, combined with the research to draw the connection, convinced me that diet plays a crucial role in keeping your mind sharp. So I went back to school and completed another degree in nutrition, and then founded the NYU Nutrition and Brain Fitness Lab in 2013.
The lab’s goal was to use all sorts of brain imaging techniques to identify which foods and nutrients support brain health — and which foods are downright harmful to the brain, in turn increasing our risk of dementia. While previous research correlated diet with cognitive decline and symptoms years later, we were using state-of-the-art medical imaging to get immediate feedback on how our diet shapes our brain.
In 2016, I became the Associate Director of the first Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic in the United States, at Weill Cornell Medical College. Since I joined, we have been working with hundreds of people with family connections to dementia. We show them how to improve their health through a combination of medical and lifestyle recommendations — including a healthy diet — not just to prevent or mitigate Alzheimer’s, but also to maintain and maximize cognitive power over a lifetime.
So, while I’m far from childhood and my home, I remain close to my roots by tying together the research of my parents, the family kitchen we shared, and my mission to prevent dementia. As a scientist, a nutritionist, and especially as a new mom, I think a lot about what makes us who we are, what shapes who we become, and the unlikely role of the kitchen at the heart of it.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi, PhD, is the Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. This piece is adapted from “Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power” published on March 6th, 2018 by Avery/ Penguin Random House (more information at www.lisamosconi.com).