Fish is not often thought of as a food to feed to toddlers but a new study shows that may need to change. Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine found consuming fish at least once a week was associated with a reduced risk of neurodevelopmental delays and the positive effects were amplified by the child’s microbiome.
Scientists studied children from birth to 18 months and published their findings in the journal Microorganisms.
"While some neurodevelopmental conditions are linked to genetics, emerging evidence suggests that environmental factors and social determinants of health may interact with genes to influence neurodevelopment," said first author Terrah Keck-Kester, assistant professor of pediatrics at Penn State. "Our findings suggest that diet, particularly fish consumption, may be one factor that could affect neurodevelopmental outcomes."
A total of 142 children were studied and their nutrition was assessed at ages 6 and 12 months using a standardized questionnaire developed by the FDA and CDC. Saliva samples were also taken at 6 months so levels of different bacteria could be measured.
"We chose saliva because of its ease of access at well-child visits, its proximity to the developing brain, and because the mouth represents one of the first sites of microbial contact for infants exploring their physical world," said corresponding author Steven Hicks, associate professor of pediatrics at Penn State.
The children were then assessed at 18 months by having parents complete a Survey of Wellbeing in Young Children, a screening tool recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The purpose was to determine if there were any neurodevelopmental delays observed in the kids such as delays in skill development pertaining to running, speaking or social interaction.
They found those who were consuming fish at 12 months did not display any neurodevelopmental delays. Those who did show signs of neurodevelopmental delays had in common an increase in two salivary microbes - Candidatus gracilibacteria and Chlorobi.
Researchers looked at a range of factors such as such as maternal stress, family income and access to healthcare, along with demographic contributors to make sure as much as they could that other influences were not at work in the study.
Accounting for the social and environmental factors, researchers found the children who ate fish at least once per week were less likely to show neurodevelopmental delays and there was also a greater microbial diversity which may have contributed to the results.
"Our results suggest that microbial diversity may be important for the metabolism and utilization of essential nutrients, such as long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, that are associated with fish consumption," Hicks said.