Mothers' diet affects the developing brain

01 December 2010

Mothers with bizarre pregnancy cravings beware – new research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that a mother’s diet during pregnancy and nursing actually alters the development the part of her child’s brain that senses flavour and odour, resulting in children who like the same foods that the mother did during pregnancy and nursing.

The research, led by Dr Josephine Todrank while she was a visiting scientist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, looked at the part of the brain that processes smells and flavours, known as the olfactory glomeruli.  The researchers fed one group of pregnant and nursing mice a bland diet and other groups of pregnant or nursing mice a cherry or mint flavoured diet.  At weaning age, the pups from mothers on the flavoured diets had significantly larger glomeruli than those on the bland diet.  They also preferred the same flavour their mother ate, while the other pups had no preference.

“This highlights the importance of eating a healthy diet and refraining from drinking alcohol during pregnancy and nursing,” said Dr Todrank.  “If the mother drinks alcohol, her child may be more attracted to alcohol because the developing fetus “expects” that whatever comes from the mother must be safe. If she eats healthy food, the child will prefer healthy food.”

“From the fetus’ point of view, whatever is in the womb is considered “good”. If your mother ate it and survived to give birth to you then it was probably safe,” she said. “This is a good strategy for a mouse that is foraging for food. It treats those same foods as safe.”  Due to the similarities in mammalian development, she said, there is no reason to think that experiments would produce different results in humans.