Unhealthy diet during pregnancy linked with ADHD

Tue, 23 Aug 2016

Research has further linked the relationship between poor diets consisting of a high sugar and saturated fat intake, and the onset of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), after finding that mothers partaking in these diets increase the likelihood of their child having ADHD.

The study, conducted by Kings College London (KCL) scientists and the University of Bristol, is thought to be the first research to indicate that the prenatal diet may alter a child's DNA, affecting brain development and leading to ADHD in children who already have conduct disorder.

According to the NHS, conduct disorder, which is the most prevalent type of mental and behavioural problem in young people, is attributed to persistent antisocial, deviant or aggressive behaviour in which basic social rules or behavioural standards are breached.

The behaviour may be non-aggressive (such as stealing, lying and vandalism) or aggressive (such as threatening, fighting and harming people or animals). It is common for children with conduct disorder to also co-occur alongside ADHD.

Although other research has already linked high-sugar, high-fat diets to behavioural problems and ADHD, this study has attempted to go a step further, looking at the mechanisms involved in this process.

The researchers studied 164 children, as well as their mothers. They were all participants of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (sometimes known as the "Children of the 90s" project). 81 children had low levels of conduct problems, while 93 had early-onset persistent conduct problems.

The diets of the mothers during pregnancy were assessed, and blood samples were taken from their children both at birth and at age seven. The researchers looked specifically at a change in IGF2, a gene involved in fetal growth and the development of the portions of the brain associated with ADHD.

In both groups, it was shown that high-sugar, high-fat diets were associated with IGF2 gene methylation, a type of modification of the gene. An increase in the IGF2 methylation amongst the group that already had conduct problems was linked to an increase of ADHD symptoms between the ages of seven and 13 years.

Co-author Dr Edward Barker, from the department of psychology at KCL, stresses the importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy. He said: "These results suggest that promoting a healthy prenatal diet may ultimately lower ADHD symptoms and conduct problems in children. This is encouraging given that nutritional and epigenetic risk factors can be altered."

Despite this, he states that parents shouldn't blame themselves if their child has ADHD, saying: "ADHD/conduct problems are very complex psychiatric problems, they are multi-determined. Diet could be important but it's going to be important alongside a host of other risks. A sensible diet can improve symptoms but it's not a single causal agent.

"Diet can affect a range of psychiatric problems. There's good evidence that diet can affect depression. Of course it affects obesity, but obesity is related to how we feel about ourselves and can be related to ADHD."

The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
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