Mothers who eat a high-fat diet during pregnancy could be harming the development of their childrens’ brains and their early mental health, according to new research in nonhuman primates.

Prior epidemiological studies in humans have linked maternal obesity with mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders in their children. The latest controlled research in macaques has now demonstrated more definitively that a high-fat diet during pregnancy and before weaning alters development of the offspring’s brain and endocrine system and increases anxiety.

The studies were carried out by a team led by Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D., assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University’s (OHSU) Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPR), and are reported today in Frontiers in Endocrinology. “This is the first study demonstrating long-lasting effects of high-fat diet consumption during early development on behavior and brain development in non-human primate offspring,” the researchers write in their published paper, which is entitled “Exposure to a High-Fat Diet during Early Development Programs Behavior and Impairs the Central Serotonergic System in Juvenile Non-Human Primates.”

The research involved feeding either a high-fat diet or normal control diet to 65 female Japanese macaques during pregnancy. When the team subsequently measured anxiety-like behaviors among 135 offspring, they found that both males and females exposed to a high-fat diet during pregnancy exhibited more anxiety than the offspring of control group mothers. In particular, exposure to a high-fat diet during pregnancy and early in development impaired the development of neurons containing serotonin in the offsprings’ brains.

The findings are particularly significant given the increasing problem of obesity in developed nations. Sixty-four percent of women of reproductive age in the U.S. are overweight and 35% are obese, professor Sullivan’s team state. “The new study suggests that the U.S. obesity epidemic may be imposing transgenerational effects. Given the high level of dietary fat consumption and maternal obesity in developed nations, these findings have important implications for the mental health of future generations.”

Professor Sullivan's team hopes that the findings will spur investment into the provision of healthy food and pre- and postnatal care for all families, to help avoid mental health disorders in future generations. “My hope is that increased public awareness about the origins of neuropsychiatric disorders can improve our identification and management of these conditions, both at an individual and societal level,” commented Jacqueline Thompson, first author of the published work.

“I think it's quite dramatic,” added Joel Nigg, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, pediatrics, and behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine, who wasn’t involved in the macaque research. “A lot of people are going to be astonished to see that the maternal diet has this big an effect on the behavior of the offspring. We've always looked at the link between obesity and physical diseases like heart disease, but this is really the clearest demonstration that it's also affecting the brain.”

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