Eating a High-Fat Diet During Pregnancy Could Lower Offspring's Alzheimer's Risk, Study in Mice Suggests

Eating a high-fat diet during pregnancy could prevent offspring from developing Alzheimer's disease later in life, according to scientists who studied mice.

Scientists fed pregnant mice high-fat diets, and gave a control group a regular diet of chow. After they gave birth, the mice were switched to a standard chow diet as they breastfed. Their babies were given regular chow.

The team tested the memory and spatial learning abilities of the offspring when they reached the age of 11 months and signs linked to Alzheimer's disease such as the build-up of amyloid beta amino acids, as well as how well their synapses (the gap between two nerve cells where impulses pass) worked.

The high-fat diet appeared to preserve the memory of the mice, as well as the functioning of their synapses. It was also linked to less of a build-up of amyloid beta.

The regime appeared to turn off three genes linked to Alzheimer's disease, by boosting the activity of the FOXP2 protein.

Eating a high-fat diet during pregnancy appears to protect offspring against developing Alzheimer's disease, the authors concluded in their paper published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. Such a diet could be use to prevent Alzheimer's disease, they said.

Senior author Professor Domenico Praticò, Director of the Alzheimer's Center at Temple at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine, commented in a statement: "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."

However, as the study was carried out in rodents, it doesn't mean the same effect would necessarily be seen in humans.

Praticò told Newsweek: "Our original hypothesis was the high fat diet during pregnancy would have a negative effect on brain health of the offspring, which was based on the abundant literature showing that indeed direct exposure to a high fat diet has a negative impact. Obviously we were totally wrong!"

Next, the team will compare the potential benefits high-fat diets with others such as the Mediterranean diet, as well as those high in sugar and protein. They also want to see if they can replicate the findings in animals as they are found in the wild, rather than bred for labs.

avocado toast, cheese, stock, getty, snack,
A stock image of a woman eating avocado and cheese on toast. Researchers have investigated the benefits of pregnant mice eating high-fat diets. Getty

As we don't currently know what causes Alzheimer's disease, and there is therefore no cure, scientists are trying to find ways to prevent the condition.

Earlier this year, a separate team of researchers in Canada and the U.K. looked at whether eating a high-fat diet in adolescence raised the risk of developing Alzheimer's later in life. The scientists concluded that obesity caused by eating a high-fat diet could worsen brain damage and memory problems characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. The findings were published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.

Evidence suggests the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruit, and grains and contains moderate levels of oily fish and dairy but is low in red meat, saturated fat and sugar, could lower a person's risk of developing dementia, of which Alzheimer's is the most common form.

This article has been updated with comment from Domenico Praticò.