Impact of Nutritional Deficiencies in the Pre and Post Natal Period on Child Brain Development – Prof Jacka

Posted on: April 7, 2017
Last Updated: September 26, 2020

Professor Felice Jacka is the Director of the Food and Mood Centre within the Deakin University School of Medicine in Geelong. She is also an honorary Principal Research Fellow with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, The Centre for Adolescent Health at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, and at the Black Dog in NSW. Professor Jacka has pioneered a highly innovative program of research that examines how individuals’ diets interact with the risk of mental health problems. This research is being carried out with the ultimate goal of developing an evidence-based public health message for the primary prevention of common mental disorders.

We know that nutritional deficiencies during pre and early postnatal periods can have a detrimental impact on brain development. We know that maternal exposure to famine during pregnancy results in an elevated risk for major depression in offspring and that has been shown in two key studies. And now there is a whole host of pre-clinical studies that I made reference to before, not only looking at the impact of dietary exposures on things like BDNF and stress response system and oxidative stress etc. but looking at this maternal diet paradigm, where they feed the pregnant rat or mouse or in some cases non-human primates a diet that is like a typical Western diet (high levels of saturated fat, refined sugar etc.) and then look at a whole range of outcomes in the offspring.


Maternal and Early Postnatal Nutrition and Mental Health of Offspring by Age 5 Years: A Prospective Cohort Study – Jacka et al., 2013

  • The sample included 23,020 mothers and their children.
  • Data were collected from mothers during pregnancy and when children were 6 months and 1.5, 3, and 5 years of age.
  • Pre and post-natal diet quality was measured
  • Children’s mental health at 18 months, 36 months and 5 years was measured (internalizing and externalizing behaviors)
  • Latent Growth curve models adjusted for: Maternal and paternal age, Maternal education, Parental income, Marital status, Maternal depression, Maternal smoking before and during pregnancy, Maternal role (home duties or paid workforce), Parity and gestational length & Parental locus of control

The study found:

  • Higher intake of unhealthy foods by mothers during pregnancy is related to increased externalizing behaviors in children
  • Higher intakes of unhealthy foods during the child’s first few years of life are related to increased internalizing and externalizing behaviors in children
  • Higher intakes of healthy foods during the child’s first years of life are related to decreased levels of internalizing and externalizing behaviors in children

From the experimental data we’ve seen already that maternal high fat/sugar diet alters methylation and gene expression of dopaminergic and opioid related genes… This intergenerational transmission of obesity is coming not just from the environment but from a direct impact on the reward system.

We see changes in the serotonergic system – increased anxiety in females and increased aggression in males.

Weaning of offspring onto a high-fat diet resulted in the upregulation of inflammatory and oxidative stress pathways and mitochondrial dysfunction.

Maternal ‘western’ diet, high in fats and sugars, and obesity increased sympathetic nervous system activity and hyperactivity in rodent offspring that persisted into adulthood.

Deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids during in utero development and early life reduce brain plasticity and increase anxiety-like behaviours in adult mice.

Maternal high fat diet results in reduced maternal care by dams during the early life of offspring.


Learn more

  1. The Impact of Diet Quality on Mental Health – Prof Felice Jacka
  2. Diet Quality and Depression in Children, Adolescents and Adults – A/Prof Felice Jacka
  3. Role of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR) – Prof Felice Jacka
  4. Can Diet Patterns be Predictive of Mental Health Disorders? – Prof Felice Jacka
  5. Generational Changes in Diet and Role of Supplements – Prof Felice Jacka
  6. Diet as a Prevention Strategy in Mental Health – Prof Felice Jacka