Early life nutrition builds brain resilience to extreme stress

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Giving a mixture of micronutrients like B vitamins to children exposed to stress in conflict zones could help fend of stress-induced cognitive damage, say researchers.©iStock/photka
Giving a mixture of micronutrients like B vitamins to children exposed to stress in conflict zones could help fend of stress-induced cognitive damage, say researchers.©iStock/photka

Related tags Vitamin Nutrition

Brain and memory impairment caused by stress during early development could be lessened by micronutrient supplements, according to a Dutch study. 

The study found a micronutrient blend of methionine and B vitamins led to a degree of neuroprotection when given to young mice.

The conclusions highlight benefits of supplementation and food fortification particularly during the early years of mental and cognitive development. 

This concept also opens up new avenues for nutritional intervention in extreme stress suffered in early childhood such as abuse and neglect or trauma caused by conflict or famine.

The study

In a collaboration between the University of Amsterdam (UvA), University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) and the Academic Medical Center (AMC), the researchers began inducing stress in female mice by restricting the amount of material available in which to build nests. This restricted the amount of time spent with their offspring.

Mothers in the control group were given plentiful nest material and were therefore able to spend much longer periods of time with their young.

During the stress-inducing event, half of the stressed mothers in the experimental group were supplemented with nutrients the body is unable to produce on its own - vitamins B6, B9 (folic acid) and B12 and the related amino acid methionine.

The stressed mice not given the nutritional supplement produced offspring that had an increased hormonal response to stress along with reduced methionine levels in their brains.

cognitive brain mental memory ageing depression iStock Dmitrii Kotin
Early-life stress may contribute to depression in later life, anxiety disorders and a less effective memory.©iStock/Dmitrii Kotin

Offspring produced from stressed mothers given the supplementation exhibited higher methionine levels in the brain and a lower hormonal stress response.

As adults they performed better on several memory tasks when compared to early-stress exposed mice whose mothers did not receive a nutritional supplement. 

“The fact that nutrients can influence impaired brain development deriving from stress in early childhood is hopeful,”​ said Dr Aniko Korosi, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam.

“It enables us to look in a targeted way for nutritional interventions for children who are growing up in stressful circumstances, for example babies that have to undergo long-term hospital stays.”

Parallels to breastfeeding

public breastfeeding breast milk infant formula mother maternal iStock Viktorcvetkovic
WHO figures from 21 European countries show only 13% of mothers exclusively feed their babies until six months. ©iStock/Viktorcvetkovic

The findings are most relevant to breastfeeding in human babies, where brain development is at its most rapid and prolific.

When this period is disturbed by exposure to childhood adversity, it can have a lasting impacts into adulthood.

Previous studies​ have shown exposure to early-life stress is associated with impaired learning and memory and a higher risk for psychopathology in later life.

Discussing the results, the team said it was unclear whether stress-exposed mothers produced less nutritious milk or if absorption in the body or brain of the young mice was impaired.

“Scientists tend to view metabolism and stress as unrelated systems, but we have demonstrated that in fact they work together in early brain programming,” ​said co-author Dr Eva Naninck, postdoctoral researcher at the NWO Food Cognition and Behaviour project.

“We hope that our insights can contribute to new nutrition strategies to mitigate the lasting effects of a seriously disturbed childhood.”

Source: Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB)

Published online ahead of print, DOI:10.1096/fj.201600834R

“Early micronutrient supplementation protects against early stress–induced cognitive impairments.”

Authors: Aniko Korosi et al.

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