A new study finds that eating a seafood-rich diet during early pregnancy is associated with better attention outcomes in children.
A team of scientists from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) evaluated 1,641 mother-child pairs from the INMA Environment and Childhood Project, a Spanish cohort study focused on the role of pollutants during pregnancy and their effects on children.
Over the course of their pregnancies, the mothers completed numerous food-frequency questionnaires which assessed how often they ate more than a hundred different food items, including various types of seafood, including fatty fish, lean fish, canned tuna and shellfish.
Data on the children’s dietary habits were also collected using the same questionnaire at one, five and eight years of age. At eight years of age, the children also completed the Attention Network Task (ANT), a computer-based neuropsychological test designed to assess attention function.
The researchers found that children whose mothers ate a diet rich in various types of seafood scored very well on the attention tests, as did children of women with a diet rich only in fatty fish. However, scores were lower in children whose mothers relied on canned tuna or shellfish for their seafood intake.
Brain development takes place primarily during pregnancy. Essential nutrients such as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) play a fundamental role in this development.
“Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are the main omega-3 PUFAs involved in neurological development, and seafood is the main source of both of them,” said Dr. Jordi Júlvez, researcher in the Childhood & Environment programme at ISGlobal and lead author of the study.
“The consumption of seafood during the first trimester of pregnancy had a greater effect on children’s attention capacity than the consumption of seafood later in pregnancy or at five years of age, by which time some neurodevelopmental processes have already been completed.”
Because these nutrients participate in the development of fetal brain structure and function, they have a large impact on later neuropsychological development. Attention is a complex behavior that all children must learn, since it precedes other crucial functions such as memory.
“We focused on the attention function because attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is common in school-age children,” commented Dr. Jordi Sunyer, head of the Childhood & Environment programme at ISGlobal.
Despite the promising results of this study, the authors of previous research have reported a link between the consumption of fish during pregnancy and childhood obesity and increased blood pressure.
As a result, experts insist on the need for more research on this subject to determine exactly which species of fish and what quantities may be beneficial to fetal development.
The findings are published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.