Chewing gum is good for the brain and can boost alertness by 10%
Chomping away boosts thinking and alertness and the study reveals reaction times amongst chewers are up to 10% faster.
The report in the journal Brain and Cognition will be welcome news to celebrity gum chewers such as football manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who is rarely ever seen on the touchline without a stick of gum in his mouth.
The newly published research suggests as many as eight different areas of the brain are affected by the simple act of chewing.
One theory to explain the increased performance is that it increases arousal and leads to temporary improvements in blood flow to the brain.
Volunteers carried out tests while chewing and not chewing gum (which was flavourless) and the brains of the men and women were scanned to see which areas were active.
During the 30-minute tests the volunteers pressed a button with their right or left thumb in response to the direction of an arrow on a screen. One test was more complicated than the other.
During both tests, alertness and reaction times were measured and results showed they improved while chewing gum.
Men and women who were not chewing took 545 milliseconds to react, compared with 493 milliseconds among the chewers. The scan results show that the brain regions most active during chewing were those involved with movement and attention.
‘Our results suggest that chewing induced an increase in the arousal level and alertness in addition to an effect on motor control and, as a consequence, these effects could lead to improvements in cognitive performance,’ said the researchers from the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan, and other centres.
How these effects come about is less clear.
In one small experiment, chewing a piece of gum for 20 minutes led to an increased heart rate, and one suggestion is that this forces more oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
Another is that chewing leads to the production of higher levels of insulin, which stimulates areas of the brain concerned with memory and alertness.
Professor Andy Smith of Cardiff University, a leading health-related behavioural specialist who has investigated chewing gum and behaviour, said: ‘It is an interesting study. The improvement in reaction time they found is highly significant. It may be that the more complicated the task, the greater the effect on reaction times.
‘We don’t really know how chewing could have such effects. Is it simply the stress-relieving effect of the rhythmic action of chewing, like chanting or a squeeze ball, or is something more fundamental going on?
‘The effects of chewing on reaction time are profound. Perhaps football managers arrived at the idea of chewing gum by accident, but they seem to be on the right track.’ However, this latest Japanese study appears to conflict with research at Cardiff University published last year.
Tests showed people who chewed gum had a harder time recalling lists of letters and numbers than those who avoided the habit.
Researchers concluded the motion involved in chewing impedes the brain’s ability to memorise serial lists.
In the same way as tapping a foot or finger can be a distraction, continual movements such as chewing can interfere with short-term memory, the research concluded.