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Could an Unhealthy Prenatal Diet Lead to ADHD in Children?

August 23, 2016

A prenatal diet high in fat and sugar could be linked to more symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children who exhibit conduct problems early in life, new research suggests. 

The study, led by researchers from King's College London and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, is published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

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The scientists compared 83 children with early-onset conduct problems with 81 children with low levels of conduct problems. They assessed how the mothers' nutrition affected epigenetic changes (or DNA methylation) to the activity of the insulin-like growth factor 2 (IGF2) gene.

The analysis found that a maternal diet including high-fat and high-sugar processed foods was associated with higher IGF2 methylation in the children, whether or not they had early-onset conduct problems.

Higher IGF2 methylation was associated with higher ADHD symptoms for children between the ages of 7 and 13, but only in those who showed early-onset conduct problems. IGF2 is involved in fetal development and the development of the cerebellum and hippocampus, areas of the brain implicated in ADHD.

"Our finding that poor prenatal nutrition was associated with higher IGF2 methylation highlights the critical importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy,” said coauthor Edward Barker, PhD, of the Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College London. "These results suggest that promoting a healthy prenatal diet may ultimately lower ADHD symptoms and conduct problems in children.”

Dr. Barker said researchers now need to look more into the effects of specific types of nutrition during pregnancy.

–Terri Airov


Rijlaarsdam J, Cecil C, Walton E, et al. Prenatal unhealthy diet, insulin-like growth factor 2 gene (IGF2) methylation, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms in youth with early-onset conduct problems. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2016 August 18;[Epub ahead of print].

Unhealthy diet during pregnancy could be linked to ADHD [press release]. London: King’s College London; August 18, 2016.

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