The conference was opened by its president, Dr Ludwig Janus of the
ISPPM who pointed out that there was now good scientific evidence
that an infant’s need for emotional and physical closeness
with its mother was as great as its need for nutrition.
Dr Janus was followed by Simon House MA whose presentation included
the most lyrical pictures of the foetus developing in the womb. The
burden of his paper was that the nutritional health of both parents
before conception was of far more importance than the nutritional
health of the mother during pregnancy. (He quoted the Dutch war-time
famine experience when the peak numbers of malformed babies coincided
with those conceived just after the famine.)
However, since the developing foetus needs more food than the mother can take
during pregnancy, she needs food and nutrient stores for her baby to feed on.
Deficits in nutrients (especially folic acid, zinc and vitamin B12) can prevent
the neural tube from sealing properly which may not only cause spina bifida and
palate but also may affect the brain’s ability to transmit signals properly.
Stress later in pregnancy increases the risk of premature births while the emotional
effects of forceps delivery and early separation from the mother correlates with
a four times greater risk of the child being criminally violent at the age of
David Marsh from the McCarrison Society, explained, for the less scientific conferees,
the meaning of epigenesis - the ability of environmental influences to act upon
a genetic mechanism and change its expression.
Although, in the 19th century, environmental influences were believed to be important
in genetic development, for the last 100 years it was thought that proteins from
the nucleus built cells regardless of environmental influences. It is now coming
to be accepted again that environmental pressures (nutritional, chemical etc)
are able to ‘throw genetic switches’.
Omega 3 v. Omega 6
The Cleave Lecture was given by Dr Joseph Hibbeln of the US National
Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, who looked at the effects
of omega 3 and 6 fats on brain function.
Both the Seychelles study and data from the huge ALSPAC study in Bristol (40,000
children have been followed since conception) make robust connections between
low levels of seafoods (omega 3 fatty acids) and motor control, IQ score and
behavioural problems (which are likely to continue into later life).
Animal studies with supplemented DHA (derived from omega 3 fatty acids) show
improvement in serotonin levels and better brain function.
Many of our current chronic physical disease states (such as coronary heart disease)
are inflammatory conditions. Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory whereas
omega 6 fatty acids (derived mainly from seed oils, usually soya which was rarely
a food source in the west until the last hundred years) are pro-inflammatory.
US consumption of soya has gone from 0.01 kilos per person per annum in 1909
to 20% of all calories consumed in 1999. 10% of those calories came from pro-inflammatory
omega 6 fatty acids.
During that period the incidence of depression has increased from 0.001% in 1955
to 1% in 1985 - yet there is robust evidence to show that a 50% reduction in
depression rates, and a 30% reduction in violence among violent alcoholics can
be achieved with omega 3 supplementation.
However, the important element appears to be less the overall intake of omega
3 oils, but that omega 3 should be taken in the correct balance with omega 6
oil (around 1 to 3). Therefore, lowering the intake of Omega 6 oils could also
lower the need for Omega 3 fish oils - and thereby reduce the burden on our already
over-exploited fish stocks.
However, it should be borne in mind that not only is there a global industry
dependent on soya production but that there is anther billion dollar pharmaceutical
industry whose purpose is to prevent the release of inflammatory compounds from
omega 6 fatty acids. So reducing omega 6 intake sufficiently to achieve a desirable
balance could be difficult.
Finally Professor Hibbeln pointed out that fish had been symbolically associated
with happiness and health in every culture and religion across the centuries.
Maybe they knew a thing or two...
Priorities in Research Funding
Dr Richard Ashcroft, reader in biomedical ethics at Imperial College,
examined the criteria (scientific or social welfare) on which prospective
research is assessed.
Is the proposal scientifically interesting/ challenging/unresolved
for a long time?
Is it the most likely to advance understanding in the field?
Is it the easiest to solve?
It is a team with the best track record - or the most potential?
Or should the criteria be quite different?
The solution of which problem would improve social welfare most?
Should research focus on the poorest in society or on future social
No matter how desirable, will scientists be able to provide an answer
no matter how much funding is given? (Richard Nixon enabled billions
of dollars for cancer research in the 1970s on the understanding
that science would have ‘solved ‘ cancer in 10 years.)
Dr Ashcroft suggested a combination of both approaches that was transparent to
David Thomas described the mineral depletion of our soil and
the food that is
grown in it - as evidenced by the government’s own data. For a full account
of his finding and views click
Barry Keverne, professor of behavioural neuro-science at Cambridge University
discussed our imprinted genes - those which are passed down from both our parents,
but only one of which (more often the paternal one) are actually expressed.
There are two separate genomes active within a pregnant mother, whose adult hypothalmus
will ‘talk to’ the placenta to ensure that the foetus gets the right
nutrition throughout pregnancy. The gene that ensures that the foetus gets the
right nutrition for itself will also predispose the mother to ‘good mothering’.
Imprinting is exclusively mammalian and appears to happen at least partially
through the evolution of the placenta.
MRI Brain Scanning
Dr Jimmy Bell of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre at Hammersmith Hospital, described
how his team are now able to use MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to assess the
real impact of foods on brain function - something which has been all but impossible
up till now. MRI scanners can, completely non-invasively, provide huge quantities
of information and allow researchers to create three-dimensional comparative
Through MRI scanning of pre-term babies they have discovered that being exposed
to an ex-utero environment prematurely alters brain development. The pre-term
brains are smaller and have significantly fewer, and less ‘tortuous’ blood
vessels - a pattern which may persist into adulthood. The movement of water within
the neurons of pre-term babies is also noticeably different from full term.
MRI scanning is also allowing the team to look directly at the activation of
the hunger and satiety neurons in the brain. They have found that the activation
patterns in very young and very old brains are quite different, that the activation
pattern was completely different for an omega 3 and omega 6 fat, and that an
old brain, supplemented with omega 3 fats, worked as well as a young brain. Omega
3s also increased the effectiveness of the blood-brain barrier.
Maternal Stress in Pregnancy
Vivette Glover, professor of perinatal psychology at Imperial College described
the growing evidence that maternal stress or anxiety during pregnancy can affect
foetal brain development with significant adverse effects on its emotional, cognitive
and behavioural development.
Prenatal stress in the mother (often a problem with a partner) worsens blood
flow to the foetus, creates hormonal changes and affects the foetal heart rate.
Studies appear to show that the effect is more marked the later in pregnancy
the stress occurs - although not all children were affected in the same way which
would suggest some genetic predisposing.
However, in one study, stress at 32 weeks of the pregnancy resulted in twice
the risk of behavioural problems at six and a half; these children also had raised
levels of cortisol.
Dr Ludwig Janus, president of the ISPPM, pointed out that up until the development
of agriculture and stock farming 10,000 years ago, pregnancies only occurred
every three to four years, thus allowing two to three years for the mother to
care exclusively for each child.
The much higher protein diet which came with agriculture allowed for annual pregnancies.
But this meant that each child was not getting its full quotient of care and
attention. These children would have an impairment in their emotional development
- and will remain dependent and often be aggressive in later life.
Dr Janus also suggested that maybe we are all born prematurely - that we should
be born at 21 months, not 9. Human babies remain dependent on their mother far
longer than other animals but they are unable to cling on to them (like monkeys)
so need to hold them by other (usually emotional) means - such as eye contact.
Maybe our cultural development stems from this need to create emotional secure
spaces through social groupings.
Dr Antonella Sansone, an infant massage teacher, described a case she had worked
on where a young mother's mastitis proved to be caused by her failure to create
a relationship with her baby, as a result of her own mother's failure to have
a relationship with her.
Dr Sansone used infant massage to resolve the situation successfully.
Jack Winkler of Food Health Research closed the conference by
quoting the current estimated cost of mental ill-health - 386 million euros -
which he suggested was approximately half the real cost - and that was excluding
the cost of maintaining
10% of the UK working population on incapacity benefit, a large proportion of
whom suffer from mental ill-health.
African politicians understand very clearly that malnourished women = malnourished
brains in their children = failure to develop economically.
The developed world needs to learn the lesson. The scientists, medical practitioners
and researchers at the conference need to ally with other groups - economists,
geneticists, agriculturalists - and infiltrate the corridors of
From the Floor
Dr Michael Crawford of the Institute for Brain Chemistry, pointed out that evidence-based
recommendations on increased intake of omega 3 versus omega 6 have been available
since the mid 1970s, but because they went against current industrial policy,
they were never acted on. Twenty years have been wasted - and the problem has
got hugely much worse. Will governments act now?
More information from the McCarrison Society /www.mccarrisonsociety.org.uk/
44 (0)20 7133 2440
Click here for more articles
First Published in 2006
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