Washington: Babies whose mothers consume a high-fat diet during pregnancy may be at an increased risk of developing mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, a study has warned.
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, the researchers said.
The study, led by Elinor Sullivan, assistant professor at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in the US, tested the effect of a maternal high-fat diet on non-human primates, tightly controlling their diet in a way that would be impossible in a human population.
The study revealed behavioural changes in the offspring associated with impaired development of the central serotonin system in the brain.
Further, it showed that introducing a healthy diet to the offspring at an early age failed to reverse the effect.
Previous observational studies in people correlated maternal obesity with a range of mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.
The new research demonstrates for the first time that a high-fat diet, increasingly common in the developed world, caused long-lasting mental health ramifications for the offspring of non-human primates, researchers said.
"It is not about blaming the mother," said Sullivan, senior author on the study published in the journal Frontiers in Endocrinology.
"It is about educating pregnant women about the potential risks of a high-fat diet in pregnancy and empowering them and their families to make healthy choices by providing support. We also need to craft public policies that promote healthy lifestyles and diets," Sullivan said.
Researchers grouped a total of 65 female Japanese macaques into two groups, one given a high-fat diet and one a control diet during pregnancy.
They measured and compared anxiety-like behaviour among 135 offspring and found that both males and females exposed to a high-fat diet during pregnancy exhibited greater incidence of anxiety compared with those in the control group.
The scientists also examined physiological differences between the two groups, finding that exposure to a high-fat diet during gestation and early in development impaired the development of neurons containing serotonin, a neurotransmitter critical in developing brains.