Generating Healthy Brains

Coinciding with the publication of the Changing Diets, Changing Minds report, the McCarrison Society joined forces with the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition and the International Society for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine (ISPPM) to stage this fascinating conference.

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.

Pre-conceptual 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 cleft 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 18.

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 welfare?
• 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 public scrutiny.

Mineral Depletion
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 here.

Genomic Imprinting
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 images.

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.

Over-Frequent Pregnancies
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.

Psychosomatic Mastitis
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.

Where now?
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 power!

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 /
44 (0)20 7133 2440


Click here for more articles

First Published in 2006

Back to top