Women pass down not only property to their children and grandchildren not only property and money but also better brain health – if they eat apples and herbs early in their pregnancy.
This surprising discovery using genetic models was made by researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
In animals, maternal diet and environment can influence the health of offspring. Whether and how maternal dietary choice impacts the nervous system across multiple generations is not well understood.
Just published in the prestigious Nature Cell Biology under the title “An Intestinal Sphingolipid Confers Intergenerational Neuroprotection,” the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute study found that certain foods could help protect against the deterioration of brain function. The discovery is part of a project that found a mother’s diet can affect not only her child’s brain but also those of her grandchildren.
More specifically, the study used roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans) as the genetic model because many of their genes are also found conserved in humans, allowing insights into human cells.
The free-living transparent nematode, which lives in a temperate soil environment, is only about one millimeter long. It has been used as a model organism to study human diseases ranging from Parkinson's disease to mitochondrial diseases and the immune system. C. elegans is suitable for analyzing the temporal effects of dietary and environmental changes, as such conditions can be precisely controlled, and their short lives allow potential multigenerational effects to be examined.
The researchers found that a molecule present in apples and herbs (basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage) helped reduce the breakdown of communication cables needed for the brain to work properly.
How fragile axons can warn us of brain dysfunction
Anatomy and developmental biology Prof. Roger Pocock, a senior author, and his team were investigating nerve cells in the brain that connect and communicate with each other through about 850,000 kilometers of cables called axons. For axons to function and survive, essential materials need to be transported along an internal structure that contains microtubules.
He explained that a malfunction that caused the axons to become fragile led to brain dysfunction and neurodegeneration. The researchers used a genetic model with fragile axons that break as animals grow older. “We asked whether natural products found in the diet can stabilize these axons and prevent breakage,” he explained.
“We identified a molecule found in apples and herbs (ursolic acid) that reduces axon fragility. 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.”
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. Pocock noted that 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,” the Monash professor concluded. “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.”