New research led by scientists from King's College London and the University of Bristol has found that a high-fat, high-sugar diet during pregnancy may be linked to symptoms of ADHD in children who show behavioural problems early in life.
The study is the first to indicate that epigenetic changes evident at birth may explain the link between unhealthy diet and ADHD.
Early onset behaviourial problems (e.g. lying, fighting) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are the leading causes of child mental health referral in the UK. These two disorders tend to occur in tandem (more than 40 per cent of children with a diagnosis of conduct disorder also have a diagnosis of ADHD) and can also be traced back to very similar prenatal experiences such as maternal distress or poor nutrition.
In the study, 83 children with early-onset behavioural problems were compared with 81 kids who had low levels of such problems.
The researchers assessed how the mothers' nutrition affected epigenetic changes of a specific gene (called IGF2) involved in fetal development and development of brain areas implicated in ADHD. Notably, gene expression of IGF2 had previously been found in children of mothers who were exposed to famine in the Netherlands during World War II.
The researchers found that poor prenatal nutrition, comprising high fat and sugar diets of processed food and confectionary, was associated with higher IGF2 gene expression in children with early onset conduct problems and those with low conduct problems.
Higher gene expression was also associated with higher ADHD symptoms between the ages of 7 and 13, but only for children who showed an early onset of conduct problems.
These findings highlight the critical importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy.
The results suggest that promoting a healthy prenatal diet may ultimately lower ADHD symptoms and behavioural problems in children.
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