Stressed out from birth: Mice exposed to prenatal stress are predisposed to eating disorders later in life
Weizmann Institute of Science | June 12, 2017

Many researchers maintain that the critical effect occurs prenatally, inside the womb. This hypothesis was, until recently, based mainly on statistical data indicating a correlation between stress during pregnancy and susceptibility to disease. Now, a new study by scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, establishes, for the first time, a clear causal link between prenatal stress and the onset of eating disorders. Furthermore, in a study in mice, researchers successfully prevented the onset of a compulsive eating disorder by the sole means of a unique diet.

To investigate these questions and others, Prof. Alon Chen and his team in the Neurobiology Department used a genetic system they developed to simulate the biological stress mechanisms in mice. The researchers injected antibiotic-susceptible viruses into the brains of pregnant mice, and in the third and final week of pregnancy, they added antibiotics to their drinking water in order to activate the system and cause the release of the stress hormone CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor). The pregnancy ended a week later, with the pups born into a favorable environment. Only after they matured some 10 weeks later were they nutritionally challenged in order to put their sensitivity to developing compulsive eating to the test: The mice were fed a “Western” diet, high in caloric value, over very short periods, which could trigger an impulse to “binge eat.” The findings were clear: females born to mothers exposed to stress during pregnancy tended to develop a compulsive eating disorder following exposure to the environmental challenge.

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