Unhealthy Diet during Pregnancy Ups Risk of Conduct Problems, ADHD

New research from the U.K. suggests a high-fat, high-sugar diet during pregnancy may be linked to symptoms of ADHD in children who show conduct problems early in life.

Scientists from King’s College London and the University of Bristol explain that this is the first study to indicate that epigenetic changes evident at birth may explain the link between unhealthy diet, conduct problems and ADHD.

Epigenetic changes refer to environmental and other factors that may turn “on” or “off” particular genetic traits thereby influencing behavior or other characteristics.

The study appears in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The finding is important as early onset conduct problems (e.g. lying, fighting) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are the leading causes of child mental health referrals.

These two disorders tend to occur together (more than 40 percent of children with a diagnosis of conduct disorder also have a diagnosis of ADHD) and can also be traced back to very similar prenatal experiences such as maternal distress or poor nutrition.

In this new study of participants from the Bristol-based
“Children of the 90s” cohort, 83 children with early-onset conduct problems were compared with 81 children who had low levels of conduct problems.

The researchers assessed how the mothers’ nutrition affected epigenetic changes (or DNA methylation) of IGF2, a gene involved in fetal development and the brain development of areas implicated in ADHD — the cerebellum and hippocampus.

Notably, DNA methylation of IGF2 had previously been found in children of mothers who were exposed to famine in the Netherlands during World War II.

Researchers found that poor prenatal nutrition, comprising high fat and sugar diets of processed food and confectionary, was associated with higher IGF2 methylation in children with early onset conduct problems and those with low conduct problems.

Higher IGF2 methylation was also associated with higher ADHD symptoms between the ages of seven and 13, but only for children who showed an early onset of conduct problems.

Dr Edward Barker from King’s College London said, “Our finding that poor prenatal nutrition was associated with higher IGF2 methylation highlights the critical importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy.

“These results suggest that promoting a healthy prenatal diet may ultimately lower ADHD symptoms and conduct problems in children. This is encouraging given that nutritional and epigenetic risk factors can be altered.”

Dr Barker added, “We now need to examine more specific types of nutrition. For example, the types of fats such as omega 3 fatty acids, from fish, walnuts, and chicken are extremely important for neural development.

“We already know that nutritional supplements for children can lead to lower ADHD and conduct problems, so it will be important for future research to examine the role of epigenetic changes in this process.”

Source: Kings College London