A high-fat diet during gestation may protect children against Alzheimer’s disease, according toa new studyfrom Temple University.

Senior investigator Domenico Praticò, M.D., professor in the Departments of Pharmacology and Microbiology and Scott Richards North Star Foundation Chair for Alzheimer’s Research,notes in a press releasethat “In humans, it has been known that individuals whose mothers develop Alzheimer’s disease after around age 65 are at increased risk of also developing the disease around the same age.” This would suggest genetic factors, but as none have been found, the researchers turned to environmental factors and, specifically, diet.

Previous research has found that high-fat intake in young/adult mice directly exacerbates the types of changes in brain function that ultimately may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. For this study, published inMolecular Psychiatry, Dr. Praticò and his team fed pregnant mice a high-fat diet throughout the gestation period, switching them to a regular diet the moment the babies were born. The offspring were kept at the same regular diet throughout their life.
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At 11 months of age, offspring underwent behavioral tests to assess learning ability and memory. Dr. Praticò said in the release, “Surprisingly, we found that animals from mothers fed a high-fat diet during gestation had better learning and memory skills than their counterparts born to mothers fed a regular diet during gestation.” Synapse function in these offspring, too, was significantly improved when compared to offspring of mothers on a regular diet, and they had lower levels of amyloid-beta, an abnormal protein that builds up in neurons and contributes to nerve cell dysfunction.

Dr. Praticò’s team found that offspring of the mothers fed a high-fat diet had increased activity of a protein called FOXP2, which represses three genes involved in Alzheimer’s disease—specifically, beta-secretase, tau, and the tau-regulating gene CDK5.

“Our findings suggest that, to be effective, Alzheimer’s disease prevention probably needs to start very early in life, during gestation. Diet at this specific life stage can have critical, but underestimated, long-term impacts on brain health.”

The team’s next steps? To compare the effects of a high-fat diet to those of other diets, including high-sugar, high-protein, and Mediterranean-style diets.