A major new study, conducted at the University of Colorado Denver's School of Medicine, has shown that a pregnant mother's diet not only sensitizes the fetus to smells and flavors, but physically changes the brain, directly impacting what the infant eats and drinks in the future. The study, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, was published Dec. 1, 2010 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, a major biological research journal and picked up by Science Daily and other publications.
"This highlights the importance of eating a healthy diet and refraining from drinking alcohol during pregnancy and nursing," said Josephine Todrank, PhD, who conducted the two-year study while a visiting scientist at the UC Denver School of Medicine. "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." In her study, Todrank, now a research fellow with collaborator Giora Heth, PhD, at the Institute of Evolution at the University of Haifa, Israel, fed one group of pregnant and nursing mice a bland diet and another a flavored diet. At weaning age, the pups from mothers on the flavored diet had significantly larger glomeruli than the others. They also preferred the same flavor their mother ate, while the other pups had no preference.
Due to the similarities in mammalian development, she said, there is no reason to think that experiments would produce different results in humans. "What an expectant mother chooses to eat and drink has long-term effects – for better or worse – on her child's sensory anatomy as well his or her odor memory and food preferences in the future," Todrank said. "It is not yet clear how long these changes and preferences last, but we are currently investigating that question."