One smart apple: Does consuming fruit during pregnancy improve cognition in babies?

Study by UAlberta scientists explores in greater depth the effect on infant cognition of drinking fruit juice while pregnant.

Andrew Lyle - 27 February 2020

You may have heard of a 2016 study linking cognitive enhancement in babies with eating more fruit during pregnancy. But how strong is that link? That’s the question scientists at the University of Alberta asked as they set out to verify the findings in a new study.

“Our research followed up on results from the original CHILD Cohort Study, which found that fruit consumption in pregnant mothers influences infant measures of cognition up to one year after birth,” said Claire Scavuzzo, co-lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Science’s Department of Psychology, “Although the findings from this study were exciting, they could not establish that fruit consumption, rather than other factors, caused the improvements on infant cognition.”

In order to settle the record and determine if fruit was truly the factor influencing infant cognition, the scientists began a study with the goal to replicate the effects in an experimental mammalian model.

“Our findings replicated what was found in humans and fruit flies. In a controlled, isolated way we were able to confirm a role for prenatal fruit exposure on the cognitive development of newborns,” explained Scavuzzo. “We see this as especially valuable information for pregnant mothers, as this offers a nonpharmacological, dietary intervention to boost infant brain development.”

Results show that infant animal models of mothers who had their diets supplemented with fruit juice performed significantly better on tests of memory—consistent with the previous study.

“Our results show that there is significant cognitive benefit for the offspring of mothers that ingest more fruit during pregnancy,” said Rachel Ward-Flanagan, co-lead author and PhD student studying under the supervision of Professor Clayton Dickson, who embarked on the follow-up study with Scavuzzo in collaboration with Francois Bolduc and Piushkumar Mandhane, both associate professors in the Department of Pediatrics of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and members of the Women and Children's Health Research Institute, which helped support the original study through funding provided by the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and supporters of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women.

Giving baby brains a boost

Dickson, Scavuzzo, Ward-Flanagan, and Bolduc are part of the University of Alberta’s cross-facultyNeuroscience and Mental Health Institute (NMHI), a consortium dedicated to the exploration of how the nervous system functions, the basis for disease, and the translation of discoveries into improved prevention and treatment options.

“The idea that nutrition may also impact mental health and cognition has only recently started to gain traction,” said Ward-Flanagan. “People want to be able give their kids the best possible start in life, and from our findings, it seems that a diet enriched with fruit is a possible way to do so.”

The paper, “Prenatal fruit juice exposure enhances memory consolidation in male post-weanling Sprague-Dawley rats,” was published in PLOS ONE.

Precision health is a signature area of research at the University of Alberta. Learn more about research and teaching in this area on our website