New research in an animal model suggests that a high-fat diet in pregnancy alters the development of the brain and endocrine system of offspring and has a long-term effect on offspring’s behavior.
The study, led by Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Division of Neuroscience at Oregon National Primate Research Center at OHSU, links an unhealthy diet during pregnancy to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression in children.
Sullivan and her team tested the effect of a maternal high-fat diet on nonhuman primates, tightly controlling their diet. The study involved a total of 65 female monkeys grouped into two. One group was given a high-fat diet and the other a control diet during pregnancy.
The researchers measured and compared anxiety-like behavior among 135 offspring and found that both males and females exposed to a high-fat diet during pregnancy showed greater incidence of anxiety compared with those in the control group.
The researchers also examined physiological differences between the two groups and they found that exposure to a high-fat diet during gestation and early in development impaired the development of neurons containing serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s critical in developing brains.
Results revealed behavioral changes in the offspring associated with impaired development of the central serotonin system in the brain. It also showed that introducing a healthy diet to the offspring at an early age failed to reverse the effect.
Previous observational studies in human associated maternal obesity with a number of mental health and neuro-developmental disorders in children. This new research has demonstrated for the first time that a high-fat diet caused long-lasting mental health effects for the offspring of non-human primates.
Findings of this study suggest that diet as well as genetic factors play an important role in the development of mental disorders like depression and anxiety. According to Sullivan, the findings of the study should educate mothers on the potential risks of a high-fat diet in pregnancy, empowering them to make healthier food choices.