A new study has found a link between a high-fat diet in pregnant primates and brain development problems in their offspring, and suggests that the same may be true for humans. Although the research is preliminary, it could have important implications considering the high rate of obesity in American women.

For the study, the team from Oregon Health & Science University looked at 65 pregnant Japanese macaques, half of which were given a high-fat diet during the course of their pregnancy while the other half were given a normal balanced diet. The 65 monkeys gave birth to 135 offspring, all of which were observed for psychiatric problems. Results revealed that both males and females born to macaques who were fed the high-fat diet displayed more nervous and anxious behavior than those born to mothers fed a normal diet. In addition, further investigation revealed that on a biological level, offspring of mothers fed a high-fat diet had impairments in neurons that made the neurotransmitter serotonin.

“My hope is that increased public awareness about the origins of neuropsychiatric disorders can improve our identification and management of these conditions, both at an individual and societal level,” said first author Jacqueline Thompson in a statement.

Read: Maternal Obesity: Children Born To Obese Mothers Die Earlier, Are More Likely To Develop Cardiovascular Disease

In addition to its many jobs, serotonin is responsible for maintaining mood balance, and deficits are associated with depression, Medical News Today reported. However, it's not clear whether deficits of serotonin cause depression, or are merely a side effect of the condition.

Previous observational studies have also shown a correlation between a mother’s obesity and mental health problems in children. For example, studies have shown that maternal obesity can increase the risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and impairments in cognition in offspring. In addition, although not proven in humans, animal studies have shown offspring born to obese mothers are more likely to display hyperactivity, impairments in social behavior, increased anxiety-like and depressive-like behaviors, substance addiction, food addiction, and diminished cognition.

The new findings combined with past research may be startling, but the study authors emphasize that they don’t mean to shame overweight mothers; they want to bring potential problems to light, and develop solutions to obesity and poor diet.

“It’s about educating pregnant women about the potential risks of a high-fat diet in pregnancy and empowering them and their families to make healthy choices by providing support,” said senior author Elinor Sullivan in a statement. “We also need to craft public policies that promote healthy lifestyles and diets.”

Source: Thompson JR, Valleau JC, Barling AN, et al. Exposure to a High-Fat Diet during Early Development Programs Behavior and Impairs the Central Serotonergic System in Juvenile Non-Human Primates. Frontiers in Endocrinology. 2017

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