Health Scan: Pregnant women’s diet, odor affect children

Hebrew U. "toothpaste" saves lives of kangaroos that develop gum disease; US hyper-texters at higher risk of trying alcohol, drugs.

December 12, 2010 05:50
Illustrative photo

pregnant woman 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [illustrative])


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A pregnant woman’s diet and her fragrance while breastfeeding determine her baby’s sense of smell and food preferences, according to a new study carried out at the Universities of Haifa and Colorado and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B . Exposure in the womb to food odors causes anatomical changes in the epithelial cell structure in the fetus’s nose and those parts of the brain responsible for translating smells, says Dr. Josephine Todrank of the Haifa institution’s Institute of Evolution.

“The fact that human infants and other mammals prefer familiar smells has been known for some time,” she said. For example, alcoholic beverages a mother might drink during pregnancy are liable to cause a preference for alcohol in the baby after delivery – and even lifelong. But the new study establishes the known phenomenon as fact, and explains for the first time how changes in the olfactory system of the fetus influence preference for familiar odors after delivery, noted Todrank, who teaches at both universities and headed the research team.

Various types of receptors are involved in the sense of smell; molecules from scents bind with these receptors, each linked with a specific odor. Data about the odor are sent along the axon of the neuron to the olfactory lobes in the brain. Using a microscope, scientists can assess how many cells of each type are found in the nose by examining the size of the ball-shaped glomerulus structure in the brain to which axons attach. When the “ball” is larger, it means the individual is more sensitive to the odor with which it is identified.

The team, which included Prof. Giora Heth of Haifa and Prof. Diego Restrepo of Colorado, used mice to mark olfactory cells with receptors that reacted to either peppermint or cherry. The rodent babies were exposed to food with the specific odor their mothers were exposed to during pregnancy or while feeding them.

In a behavioral study, the babies preferred food with the same odor their mothers smelled. In addition, the glomeruli in their brains were larger than those in a control group not exposed to any odor.

The researchers concluded that exposure to odors in the amniotic fluid or mother’s milk brings about dramatic changes in the structure of the olfactory system, and that the mice prefer foods with those specific smells. They also suggest that many types of mammals that are weaned and leave their mothers quickly are able to live independently when they develop an olfactory system that distinguishes between foods that are edible and those that are poisonous. They are attracted to “safe” foods that their mothers ate during pregnancy or during lactation, and prefer them over odors of foods that are harmful or not nutritious that the mother avoided, they said. The research has important implications for humans, they noted, recommending that women expose themselves to beneficial odors during pregnancy.


A “toothpaste” developed by Hebrew University of Jerusalem scientists has been shown to save the lives of captive kangaroos that develop gum disease, lose their appetites and die of starvation.

Kangaroos living in captivity all over the world are known to suffer from “lumpy jaw disease,” which results in periodontal diseases, severe gingivitis and potentially deadly abscesses. The topically applied varnish that they made can treat periodontal diseases in kangaroos – thus increasing the survival rate from gum disease to 100 percent.

The quality of the captive diet and environmental stress often lead to the development of periodontal diseases in kangaroos, which have severe ramifications. Four years ago, at Gan Guru kangaroo park at Kibbutz Nir David, an outbreak of the disease led to the death of about 40% of the zoo’s kangaroos. The high mortality rate results in dwindling populations – compounding the already low reproduction rates among the kangaroos and low survival rates of baby kangaroos.

Existing treatment of periodontal diseases for kangaroos requires insertion of an antibiotic under anesthesia or by force several times a day, followed by solitary confinement to prevent cross infection of other animals. This treatment only increases the pressure to which the kangaroo is subjected; it is not easy to force-feed a kangaroo (which has strong arms, legs and a tail) that weighs on average of 75 kilos. This means that many kangaroos don’t benefit from the treatment and therefore may die from the illness.

The innovative varnish was developed by Prof. Michael Friedman of HU’s School of Pharmacy; Prof. Doron Steinberg of the Faculty of Dental Medicine; and Dr. Eran Lavy of the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine at the Robert H.

Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. The treatment combines disinfectant agents embedded in a polymeric matrix, and is based on the principle of sustained release of the drug from the varnish. The attending veterinarian applies the drug on the affected areas in the kangaroo’s mouth.

The researchers hypothesized that by applying a version of the medicine, (which is commonly used for treating oral diseases in humans), many kangaroos can be saved. The study, whose results were published recently in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, was conducted over three years at Gan Guru and at Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo. The new treatment is good news for cats and dogs too. Most dogs aged four and above have various dental problems. Like kangaroos, dogs can have periodontal infections that lead to systemic diseases.

A recent study of dozens of dogs showed that the dental varnish is also effective in treating canine dental disorders. The researchers are now examining ways to integrate food supplements into the medicine.

As this oral problem is not confined to Israel, the researchers have been approached by veterinarians from other countries to use this novel application in kangaroos and other animals as well.


American teens who excessively send SMS messages (hyper-texters) are at higher risk of trying alcohol and other drugs, get into a fight or have sex, according to researchers at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. As there are plenty of young Israeli hyper-texters who send dozens or even more than 100 SMSs a day, Israeli parents and the authorities should take note.

Study leader Dr. Scott Frank told UPI that his survey of a cross section of high school pupils from an urban Midwestern county indicates about a fifth of teens have such a relationship with their cellphones.

They are 40% more likely to try cigarettes, two times more likely to try alcohol, 43% more likely to be binge drinkers, 41% more likely to use illicit drugs, 55% more likely to have been in a physical fight, more than three times more likely to have sex and 90% more likely to report four or more sexual partners, Frank said. One wonders how they have enough time for all this. “The startling results of this study suggest that when left unchecked, texting and other widely popular methods of staying connected can have dangerous health effects. This should be a wake-up call for parents.”

The study also finds that teen hypernetworking – spending more than three hours per school day on social networking sites – was linked to higher stress, depression, suicide, substance abuse, fighting, poor sleep, poor classwork, TV watching and parental permissiveness.

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