A Mother’s Diet May Impact Brain Health of Children and Grandchildren

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A recent study found that eating certain foods during pregnancy may help protect the brain health of a patient's baby and grandchildren.

The study, published in Nature Cell Biology, was led by Roger Pocock, PhD, a professor at Monash University in Victoria, Australia. Pocock and his team of investigators aimed to determine whether natural products found in the diet could help protect brain health in the offspring of pregnant people.

Pocock and his colleagues focused on the health of cables in the brain known as axons that allow for connection and communication among nerve cells. According to researchers, for axons to function and survive, essential materials must be transported along an internal structure containing microtubules. When those materials aren't delivered, the axons become fragile, which can lead to brain dysfunction and neurodegeneration.

Using roundworms as their genetic model, which share many genes with humans, researchers observed how specific molecules found in food impacted axons and brain functioning. They found that a molecule present in apples and herbs such as basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage was associated with a reduction in the breakdown of the communications cables, helping maintain brain function.

"We identified a molecule found in apples and herbs, ursolic acid, that reduces axon fragility,” said Pocock. “We found that ursolic acid causes a gene to turn on that makes a specific type of fat. This particular fat also prevented axon fragility as animals age by improving axon transport and therefore its overall health."

To protect axons in the next generation, this type of fat, known as sphingolipid, had to travel from the mother's intestine, where food is digested, to eggs in the uterus, explained Pocock.

According to Padock, although the results are promising, more research is needed to determine the effect of sphingolipids on humans and their offspring.

"This is the first time that a lipid/fat has been shown to be inherited," he said. "Further, feeding the mother the sphingolipid protects the axons of two subsequent generations. This means a mother's diet can affect not just their offspring's brain but potentially subsequent generations. Our work supports a healthy diet during pregnancy for optimal brain development and health."