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Huge amounts of iron, proteins, and fatty acids are put to work in a construction frenzy that begins mere weeks after sperm meets egg.
Neuroscientist Carol Cheatham is working to find out exactly how the nutrients a mom passes on to her baby—first through the placenta and later through her breast milk or in formula—can affect brain power for life. In Cheatham’s lab in Kannapolis, North Carolina, a baby named Lincoln sits on his mom’s lap, watching pictures of toys flash on a screen in front of him.
Each of the suction cups is a sensor that picks up on electric impulses from Lincoln’s brain. The electric impulses from the sensors create an image, a curving line that shows Lincoln’s brain activity as he checks out each passing toy. For babies who don’t get enough DHA, the waves for both new and familiar toys are virtually identical.
Most babies’ brains produce a line that plunges when a new toy appears on the screen, meaning that the brain is hard at work processing the image.
When the waves for new toys and for familiar toys are virtually identical, Cheatham says, “it means the baby can’t tell the difference between old and new pictures. Doctors have said for a long time that baby brains fed on breast milk perform better, but Cheatham is finding that the difference isn’t as simple as breastfeeding versus formula-feeding. The breastfeeding advantage disappears when a mom can’t synthesize the fatty acid DHA, Cheatham says. Cheatham’s still analyzing data from this study, but her early results show that babies whose brains have trouble remembering are those who don’t get enough DHA. If you have kids, or even if you don’t, you may have seen the letters DHA on all kinds of product labels in the grocery store.
You need DHA (or docosahexaenoic acid) throughout your life to keep your brain functioning at its best. Unfortunately, clinical trials haven’t been able to prove that DHA from supplements and infant formula has the same benefits as DHA made in the body.
The same thing could happen in other populations through fetal programming, which refers to the way babies are conditioned for the world by their experience in the uterus and the placenta. Babies today are getting lots of supplemental DHA, in addition to what most mothers produce naturally. And the result, Cheatham theorizes, “is that the system thinks there’s a lot of DHA in the world and that there’s no need to make it.
She’ll find bigger samples in Singapore, Vietnam, and eastern China, where the typical diet is high in fish and 50 percent of the population cannot make DHA. Without a genetic test, there’s no way to know whether you’re part of the 7 percent, Cheatham says. Children with cognitive delays caused by nutrient deficiency may never catch up with their peers when it comes to brain power. If you have comments or a request for permission to reprint material, contact us here.

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The Office of Technology Development (OTD) is the only UNC office authorized to execute license agreements with companies. In the US, a federal advisory recommends that pregnant women not eat more than two servings of fish weekly.
Conveniently, a recent study by psychologists Gordon Gallup Jr, Marissa Hamilton, and their colleagues addresses this very question.
One way to find out is to look at the genes of people whose mothers were extremely stressed during pregnancy. In the research community there’s much interest in the idea that, by maintaining our telomeres, gene therapy might someday reverse or prevent aging if started early enough.  Is it possible? Scientists found that men whose ring fingers are longer than their index fingers are likelier to have longer-than-average penises, at least among Korean men whose flaccid genitals were stretched under anesthesia.
My first review for Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?, from this week’s Publishers Weekly. Certain fatty fish—such as salmon, sardines, and trout—are high in DHA because they eat a lot of algae, which is high in linolenic acid. Together they create an image of his brain activity while he looks at toys on a computer screen. New cells, new synapses, new neurons—the fetal brain can make up to a quarter million every minute. We build our capacity for things like memory and higher cognition in the womb, and that capacity is all we have as long as we live. This is how Cheatham measures memory and cognition in study subjects who can’t talk yet. When a new toy appears on the screen, most babies’ brains produce a line that plunges and then sweeps back up as the brain commits the image to memory.
Then the line sweeps back up, rising into an arc—that’s the brain committing the image to memory—before settling back to the baseline. The brain realizes it’s seen the toy before, so it doesn’t expend the energy to process it again. When a baby has a DHA deficiency, it could mean that the breastfeeding mom needs to cut down on omega-6 fats and add more omega-3 fats to her diet. Additional amounts come from prenatal vitamins—which most mothers continue to take while breastfeeding—or from infant formula.
And then at 12 months, when the baby’s weaned off of formula and it comes time for the system to take over, where is the system? So far, her samples have been relatively small, mainly because it’s tough to find participants who belong to that 7 percent of the population who can’t make DHA. And a better understanding of individual differences in fatty-acid requirements can help doctors and parents make sure each child gets the right diet for optimal brain development.

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Fears of mercury and PCB contamination are valid (many varieties of fish, such as tuna, have high levels that are toxic to fetuses). The use of these fish oil capsules compared with vegetable oil cap- sules during pregnancy did not result in improved cognitive and language development in their offspring during early childhood. The researchers that found negative results of supplementation on nursing infants speculated on what goes wrong.
The effects of life events on our genes—what we eat, what we breathe, who we love and how well we’re loved, and so on —are impossible to isolate.
Studying the files of women who were raped in 1999-2006, French researchers discovered that there were fewer incidences of living sperm than in rape victims in previous generations, which supports the theory that sperm quality is declining.
As Pincott negotiates her pregnancy, she explores a wide array of subjects expectant parents will find utterly captivating, drawing from studies in evolutionary psychology, biology, social science, neuroscience, reproductive genetics, endocrinology, and largely from research in the field of epigenetics, the influence of environment on the behavior of genes.
Cheatham uses this test to measure memory and cognition in study subjects who can’t talk yet. Attractive infants are perceived to be more sociable, easier to care for, and more competent than their homely peers.
They meant extreme stressors: a sudden divorce, a death in the family, a natural disaster, and physical or emotional abuse. There’s less DHA in their plasma during pregnancy—meaning that less DHA reaches the fetus during crucial brain-development time—and lower DHA in their breast milk. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find prenatal vitamins and infant formula that don’t include DHA.
These preferences are hard-wired in us to elicit care and protection, while the perception of adult beauty is tempered by culture. Excess cortisol may also slow down in the production of telomerase, an enzyme that acts as a repair kit for telomeres.
The nearly 12,000 expectant women who participated in the study were asked to record how much whole fish they ate, not fish oil supplements. They described a feeling of discomfort, of a strange unease; that they understood subconsciously that the baby would die. Many described how they dreamed of dead relatives and of death on the night the baby probably died. A recent fMRI study reported that women who had given birth vaginally exhibited greater activation in brain regions involved in the regulation of empathy, arousal, motivation and reward circuits in response to their baby’s cries compared to those who had not.

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