Nutrimenthe at the 11th European Nutrition Conference, Palacio de Congresos de Madrid, 26th-29th October 2011
NUTRIMENTHE at the 11th European Nutrition Conference, Palacio de Congresos de Madrid, 26th-29th October 2011
The NUTRIMENTHE consortium hosted a symposium “Nutrition and Cognitive Function” that attracted 250 delegates. NUTRIMENTHE Coordinator, Cristina Campoy provided an overview of the work of the project which was followed by a more in-depth look at some key results regarding pre-natal nutrition and mental performance outcomes in children from NUTRIMENTHE researchers Dr Henning Tiemeier and Dr Eva Lattka.
Dr Henning Tiemeier, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam
Dr Tiemeier presented results from the Generation R study which is examining the role that folate plays in childhood behaviour. “We know that folic acid is important in the prevention of spinal cord defects” noted Dr Tiemeier “but we wanted to investigate what happens later in childhood, to emotional and behavioural development” Many countries in Europe recommend taking folic acid supplements before pregnancy and during the first three months. Dr Tiemeier demonstrated that low levels of folate in early pregnancy is associated with a higher risk of emotional problems in early childhood, a result of lack of prenatal supplement use, despite existing recommendations.
Thyroid hormones and language development. Thyroid hormones play a crucial role in a child’s brain development. A developing foetus relies on a supply of maternal hormone throughout pregnancy but especially during the first three months. “This has been known since the 1970’s” said Dr Tiemeier who presented work showing that hypothyroxinemia is related to head-size in the foetus such that growth slows toward the end of pregnancy and does not ‘catch-up’ until a child is about two years old. This difference was not related to behavioural problems in early childhood but, maternal hypothyroxinemia was related to a higher likelihood of expressive language delay at 18 months and 30 months. Expressive language includes the ability to form sentences, use grammar correctly, and retell a story or event. Dr Tiemeier concluded that “subtle changes in a physiological parameter may have considerable effect on the health of children” However, it is too early to speculate about possible interventions.
Dr Eva Lattka, Helmholtz Zentrum Munich, German Research Centre for Environmental Health. Dr Lattka presented results from the ALSPAC study which has shown that fish eating in pregnancy is related to later childhood IQ in particular verbal intelligence when measured at age 8. In the study, children born to women who reported the highest fish intake, demonstrated better outcomes in tests looking at verbal intelligence, fine motor skills and prosocial behaviour (giving helping and sharing). The ALSPAC team speculated that omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), might be responsible for the effect. DHA is known to be an important structural component of the cell membranes of the brain and indeed it and other fatty acids, accumulate in the brain during development. Fish eating during pregnancy is related to levels of maternal fatty acids, but it has not been shown until now whether fatty acids including DHA, are directly related to outcomes in children. This has been investigated through the Nutrimenthe project which found that there are no associations with the level of maternal DHA and childhood IQ “DHA does not appear to be the missing link” noted Dr Lattka “but it could be another nutrient, or nutrients, in fish that influence IQ or perhaps, IQ is not an optimal measure” The child’s diet is also likely to be important. This work is as yet unpublished and Nutrimenthe is setting up new studies to investigate
FADS genotypes and omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acid processing
Further work presented by Dr Lattka from ALSPAC indicates that polymorphisms in the genes (FADS) that encode the delta-5 and delta-6 desaturase enzymes, involved in synthesis of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, influence how these fatty acids are processed during pregnancy. Some FADS polymorphisms result in a reduced activity of the desaturase enzymes, leading to decreased levels of products. This effect of FADS genotypes is observed in the fatty acid content of blood samples taken from pregnant women and in breast milk. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are supplied to the foetus by placental transfer via the umbilical cord but, the influence of FADS genotypes on umbilical cord fatty acids has not been investigated until now. Dr Lattka showed that omega-6 fatty acid amounts in cord blood are dependent on both maternal and child FADS genotypes. Maternal genotypes are concerned with supplying the omega-6 precursors and the child genotypes with producing omega-6 products. “There is more contribution to omega-6 fatty acids by the foetus than previously expected. DHA levels are dependent on both maternal and child metabolism” Dr Lattka noted and that “DHA supplied by the mother might be very important”
Breastfeeding, FADS genotypes and IQ
Dr Lattka also presented results from ALSPAC showing that different FADS genotypes can influence verbal and performance IQ in children at age 8. Children carrying a particular ‘minor’ variant in FADS genes, that were never breastfed, demonstrated the lowest performance in the IQ test compared to breastfed children, irrespective of genotype. Dr Lattka noted that more studies are required and that “we are a long way from dietary recommendations based on genotypes but gene-nutrient interaction studies might be a way forward” However, the results from this gene-nutrient interaction study suggest that the idea that fatty acids have a role in mental performance might not be too far-fetched. Dr Lattka noted that more studies are required and that “we are a long way from dietary recommendations based on genotypes but gene-nutrient interaction studies might be a way forward”.
These presentations were followed-up by the co-chair of the session Professor Elliot Berry who gave a presentation on the role of Leptin as a Survival Hormone. Leptin is a hormone that plays a key role in the regulation of appetite and metabolism. It is released by fat cells and once enough fat is stored in the cells to ensure survival, leptin is released and signals to the brain that no more food is necessary. Elliot Berry noted that undernutrition leads to physiological stresses including a reduction of leptin levels. Interestingly, leptin levels correlate with survival in intensive care patients.
Elsewhere at FENS, NUTRIMENTHE researcher Bernadette Egan presented work from NUTRIMENTHE’s Consumer research study. There is evidence in the scientific literature of the effects of diet on mental performance but very little published regarding parent’s perceptions of the relationship between a child’s diet and their mental performance. NUTRIMENTHE’s ongoing Consumer study is asking what parents perceive to be the effect of diet on a child’s development and in particular on their mental performance and whether these perceptions impact on food choices parents present to their children. Interviews were conducted with parents of children aged 4-10 in four European Countries. Questions covered issues such as the extent to which a child’s attention and ability to learn are affected by a range of factors including food-related, factors important to parents when providing food for their children and what influences a parent’s decision regarding how to feed their children. Parents believe that diet affects aspects of children’s mental performance and this term is often spoken of attention and concentration but, other factors such as the provision of variety and overall healthiness of food, may be more important in the food choices parents make.
Cristina Campoy: The NUTRIMENTHE EU project "Effect of diet on Mental Performance of Children"
Henning Tiemeier: Maternal dietary markers in pregnancy and the mental health of children. The Generation R Study.
Eva Lattka: The effect of FADS genotypes, fatty acids and fish intake on mental development in children. Results from the ALSPAC Study.
Elliot Berry: Leptin as a survival hormone: Diet restriction, cognition and longevity: Relationship to eating disorders.
Bernadette Egan: Diet and Mental Performance of children: A Survey of Parents in Four European Countries.
Published in Nutrimenthe