Mothers who eat apples and herbs during their early pregnancy could be protecting the brain health of their children and grandchildren, a Monash University study using genetic models has found.
The discovery is part of a project that found a mother’s diet can affect not just her child’s brain but also those of her grandchildren.
Published in Nature Cell Biology, the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute study found that certain foods could help prevent the deterioration of brain function.
This study used roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans) as the genetic model because many of their genes are also found in humans, allowing insights into human cells.
The researchers found that a certain molecule present in apples and herbs such as basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage helped in reducing the breakdown of communication cables needed for the brain to work properly.
Senior professor Roger Pocock, with his team, investigated nerve cells in the brain that connect with each other through about 8,50,000 kilometres of cables called axons. For axons to function and survive, essential materials need to be transported along an internal structure that contains microtubules.
Pocock explained that a malfunction that caused the axons to become fragile can lead to brain dysfunction and neurodegeneration.
He said his team used a genetic model with fragile axons that break as animals age. “We tried to find whether natural products found in the diet can stabilise these axons and prevent breakage,” he explained.
“We identified a molecule found in apples and herbs that reduces axon fragility — ursolic acid. 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.” Pocock said this type of fat, known as a sphingolipid, had to travel from the mother’s intestine, where food is digested, to eggs in the uterus for it to protect axons in the next generation. He said while the results were promising, they still need to be confirmed in humans.
“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,” Pocock said.