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New Research Shows Parental Nutrition Impacts Children and Grandchildren

Mihai Niculescu, MD, PhD, with the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute, uses his expertise in epigenetics to study how nutrition influences the genetic interplay between parents and children across generations.
    CHARLOTTE, NC, March 07, 2014 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Mihai Niculescu, MD, PhD, with the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis, is proving that the nutritional choices parents make today have a measurable genetic impact on the health of their children and even their grandchildren.

Environment and Genetics

Niculescu is an expert in the field of epigenetics, the study of how the environment, including nutrition, can influence the activation of genes. He has authored more than 30 peer-reviewed publications, a book and numerous book chapters. He focuses on nutrition as an epigenetic trigger, and studies how nutrition influences the genetic interplay between parents and children.

"Environmental effects (can) induce chemical changes on the genes, what we call DNA methylation," Niculescu explained. "DNA methylation has a profound effect on how genes express. These chemical changes can be inherited through the generations."

Omega-3 and Epigenetic Inheritance

In 2011 and 2013, he published results of a study in the International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience and in the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology that examined in a mouse model the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation with flaxseed oil during gestation and lactation. The purpose was to observe the brain development of the mouse pups. One finding from the study confirmed that whether or not mouse pups benefitted from their mother's omega-3 supplementation depended on her omega-3 intake during gestation.

"In order for the supplementation to be efficient in lactation, the mother has to have an adequate intake of the same omega-3 fatty acid during gestation. If the mothers are deficient in gestation, and you suddenly supplement them in lactation it does little to nothing," Niculescu explained. "Interestingly, flaxseed oil supplementation also induced epigenetic changes to the Fads2 gene (which controls the metabolism of omega-3 fatty acids) in both maternal and pups' livers."

Additional findings (manuscript under review) showed epigenetic changes in the pups' brains in genes that regulate memories and how they are formed and retained. It turned out that flaxseed oil supplementation influenced the expression of memory-related genes such as Arc and Reelin, as well as of genes involved in the epigenetic regulation (such as Dnmt1 and Mecp2). Niculescu emphasized that the findings confirm that "optimizing brain development is a process that happens through different stages of development and is impacted by maternal nutrition."

In a collaborative study with NRI colleague Carol Cheatham, PhD, who is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist, Niculescu found that mothers who have genetic defects in a gene required for omega-3 metabolism (FADS2), and according to their own DNA methylation, responded to their children's nutritional needs by giving them more omega-3, even though the children may not need it (manuscript in preparation).

"That will be the first report suggesting that parents impose nutrition on their child based on their own genetics and epigenetics. No one knew that a mother would impose upon the child a nutritional intake as a result of her own genetic and epigenetic background," Niculescu remarked.

The NC Research Campus in Kannapolis, just outside of Charlotte, NC, is home to corporate, academic and healthcare partners focused on advancing science at the intersection of human health, agriculture and nutrition. Learn more at http://www.ncresearchcampus.net.


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