Early Life Nutrition and Neurodevelopment By Prof Michael Berk

Posted on: July 2, 2019
Last Updated: October 17, 2020

Prof Michael Berk is the Alfred Deakin Chair of Psychiatry at Deakin University. He is a past President of the International Society of Bipolar Disorders and the Australasian Society of Bipolar and Depressive Disorders. In addition, he holds several honorary professorial research fellowships. Prof Berk has published over 800 papers and has received several national and international awards, including the Brain and Behaviour Foundation Colvin prize. 

Author Quotes  

If we’re going to try and prevent depression at a public health level, we can’t start early enough, and data in adolescents is compelling.

People with the highest rates of healthy diet had the lowest rates of depression. Independent of that, people who had the highest intake of unhealthy foods had by far the highest risk for the development of depression.

All the new biological pathways that we think are driving depression in humans are dysregulated in animal studies by poor quality diet.

Summary and slides  

Professor Berk discusses the importance of taking steps to reduce the risk of depression early in life.


He re-iterates the correlation between poor diet and the risk of developing depression, and independently, the protection of a good quality diet confers. In a study in adolescents, statistical considerations accounting for confounding factors did not affect these conclusions. 

He then describes a study in 23,000 mother and baby pairs, looking at the effects of pre- and post-natal diet on the children’s mental health. Negative effects on the children’s behavior were observed when the maternal diet was unhealthy during pregnancy, and when the child’s diet was unhealthy. The same effects were observed when lower amounts of healthy foods were consumed. 

He goes on to present data from other studies that confirm these findings in very young children. The effect of poor maternal diet on women’s mental health is also discussed.

A meta-analysis showed a small but statistically significant association between better maternal diet and neurodevelopment.  

Finally, Professor Berk describes the outcomes of various animal studies, which essentially correspond to the effects seen in humans. 

Take-home Points  

  • Nutrition in early life can affect the mental health and neurodevelopment of children. 
  • Measures to tackle poor diet and thereby reduce the risk of depression should start as early in life as possible. 
  • In animal studies, key biological pathways involved in depression are impacted by diet. 


Learn more

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  3. Healthy Diet vs Nutraceuticals in Depression by Prof Michael Berk
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  6. N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder- Prof Michael Berk
  7. Glutathione, Oxidative Stress and N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) in Psychiatric Disorders – Prof Michael Berk
  8. Oxidative and Inflammatory Biomarkers as Targets for Novel Therapies – Prof Michael Berk