By Nhial Tiitmamer
Speaking during an interview about his talk delivered on November 17, 2008, entitled, “You are What Your Mother Ate,” Dr. Neil Haave, Associate Professor of Biology at University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus, said studies have shown that what a mother eats during pregnancy has a long term effect on her child. The talk was part of a series of colloquia related to Augustana yearly theme.
“The context that I gave my talk in was to try and make people understand that what we become is much more than our genes, is much more than our DNA,” Dr. Haave said. “Our genes have an effect on who we become but they don’t determine everything.” Dr. Haave’s knowledge comes from studies that he carried out during his graduate years in the late 1980s. He wanted to understand the long-term effects maternal nutrition has on child development.
“We had some examples of looking at how different kinds of nutrients seemed to influence how children metabolism works,” he said. His interest drew him to study Cholestamin, a drug used to treat people with high blood cholesterol. Feeding this drug to pregnant rats, he discovered it showed some kind of influence on the offspring of the rats. When it appeared that the drug which was being ingested by the mother rat had influence on the fatty acid profiles of the offspring, he started feeding pregnant rats with different kinds of fats.
“I use palm oil, olive oil and sun-flower oil. And those ones have different fatty acid profiles,” he said. “Palm oil has got a lot of saturated fats, olive oil has got a lot of monounsaturated and sun-flower oil has got a lot polyunsaturated fats.” Those kinds of fats have different melting temperature. The test results showed that different kinds of fats had different influence on the metabolic organs of offspring of the rats.
In later studies, he found other studies that show those fats are capable of influencing the neurons in the brain. A 2000 study on pigs showed that those fats also influenced the behavior of the pigs, saying that they might change the structure of the brain. He added that people are thinking that our cellular environment influences which genes are expressed and which ones are not expressed. For example, in a certain environment influenced by a particular kind of fat, some genes can be turned off and others can be turned on, resulting in the expression of different phenotypes. One example Dr. Haave gave of this phenomenon is that of spring caterpillar, which looks different from the summer caterpillar due to different kinds of food they eat.
Asked whether obesity is determined by the food that the mother eats, Dr. Haave said recent studies also show that a kind of fat that the mother eats may influence whether the child becomes obese or not. According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail, “exposure to a high-fat diet in [the] uterus produces permanent neurons in the fetal brain that later increase the appetite for fat.” Some pregnant rats were fed on 50% fatty food while others were fed on a balanced diet. The offspring of the rats fed with fatty food had big appetite and weighed more than the offspring of rats with the balanced diet. This study suggests that mothers who eat a lot of fatty food during the pregnancy may have kids who love fatty food, exposing them to high chances of obesity.
Dr. Haave talked about ongoing research in this field. A team at the University of Alberta is now exploring further into how maternal nutrition affects the mental health of the mother, as well as the neurological development of the child. Based at the North Campus in Edmonton, the team include Drs Bonnie Kaplan, Catherine Field and Deborah Dewey. Their research has been provisionally titled: “The Impact of Maternal Nutrient Status during Pregnancy on Maternal Mental Health and Child Development” or in short: “Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition.” With continuous research in this field, there is hope that a better understanding can be made on how maternal nutritions shape humans.