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When Willie Wilson admonished mamas everywhere to not let their babies grow up to be cowboys, he had no idea how accurate his assessment of a mother’s power really was. Turns out, mom have a lot of control over what their babies become, before and after birth.
For instance, research done at Duke University Medical Center in 2003 revealed that what a mother eats before and during pregnancy can actually switch certain genes on and off in her child. The study took a group of obese, yellow mice and fed them diets that are rich in the nutrients Vitamin B12, Folic Acid, Betaine, and Choline. Despite still carrying their mother’s genes for yellow fur and obesity, the baby mice born from this test were brown and remained svelte throughout their lives. This worked because the gene that controls both coat color and appetite is affected by methyl groups, of which Vitamin B12, folic acid, betaine, and choline are chock full.
Methyl Groups can switch genes on or off or, in some cases, just increase or decrease their impact. unfortunately, while this might be a great thing sometimes, like say if it cut out the gene that might give your kid diabetes, methyl groups might also turn off “good” genes, like the ones that inhibit certain types of cancers. Right now, nobody has a good enough idea of how methyl groups work to know how to target in on specific “bad” genes without impacting good ones. We do, however, have plenty of evidence that what pregnant moms eat affects gene expression and can have surprising consequences a long way into their children’s lives.
For instance, according to an October 2003 New York Times article on the subject, famines in Holland after World War II left many fetuses (and their mother) malnourished. Years. later Holland saw a big increase in the number of adults with schizophrenia, an increase directly linked to what nutrients those adults had (or, rather, hadn’t) gotten in the womb.
Just because your child has left your womb doesn’t mean you no longer have power over its DNA express. Two separate studies done by neurologists at Columbia University and Canada’s McGill University have shown that maternal behaviour after birth can also lead to a child’s genes being turned on and off – in this case, genes that will eventually determine how that child parents his or her own offspring.
According to a May 2006 Discover Magazine article, the American neurobiologists studied two groups of rats, those that spent a lot of time grooming and licking their babies and those that didn’t. It turned out that, if a femail baby rat didn’t get likced enought then her body turned off a series of genes that should have produced certain “mothering” and “love” hormones, like estrogen and oxytocin.
Deprived of those, the female rat grew up to exhibit the exact same insufficiently nurturing behavior her mother had shown her – thus continuing the cycle for another generation. On the other hand, when a baby girl rat go an extraordinary amount of lick-based attention from her mommy, she went on to actually have higher-than-average levels of estrogen and oxytocin. Again, the expression genes and the production of hormones cause her to display maternal behaviours that were similar to her own mother’s.