Mom’s diet during pregnancy can boost brain health across generations
Using genetic models, a new study suggests that mothers that eat a naturally occurring compound that improves brain health in early pregnancy may pass the benefits down to their children and even grandchildren. The researchers say their findings reiterate the importance of eating a healthy diet during pregnancy.
In animals, exposure to environmental and dietary changes can lead to physiological changes in offspring. But what about generations after that? And does the same thing occur in humans?
Examining Caenorhabditis elegans, the roundworms favored by scientists because they contain many genes also found in humans, a new study by researchers at Monash University has found that mothers who eat apples and herbs in early pregnancy could protect the brain health of their children and grandchildren.
Specifically, the researchers looked at axons, which transmit electrical impulses between nerve cells (neurons). Axonal health is maintained by a uniform array of microtubules, which transport essential materials such as RNA, proteins and lipids. Defective microtubules disrupt the supply of these materials, causing axon fragility associated with neurodegenerative disorders.
“We asked whether natural products found in the diet can stabilize these axons and prevent breakage,” said Roger Pocock, corresponding author of the study.
The researchers used a model of C. elegans containing fragile axons that break as the animal ages. They found that providing the roundworms with ursolic acid, a natural compound found in apple peel, rosemary and sage, reduced axon fragility. Ursolic acid has previously been found to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-cancer effects.
“We identified a molecule found in apples and herbs (ursolic acid) that reduces axon fragility,” said Pocock. “How? 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.”
This fat is a sphingolipid called sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P). Sphingolipids are found in the central nervous system and participate in tissue development, cell recognition and adhesion. The researchers found that the ingested sphingolipid needed to travel from the mother’s intestine to eggs in the uterus for it to protect axons in offspring. Interestingly, they found that the protection carries on to subsequent generations.
“This is the first time that a lipid/fat has been shown to be inherited,” said Pocock. “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.”
While the findings are promising, further research needs to be undertaken to confirm whether this phenomenon occurs in humans.
The study was published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.
Source: Monash University