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  February 25, 2002

New Snack Bar for Pregnant Women
May Boost Fetal Development
By Janice Palmer

For the next four years, a research team headed by UConn nutritionist Carol Lammi-Keefe will be living by the beeper, along with more than 100 expectant fathers in the Hartford area.

Lammi-Keefe has been awarded a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take her research on docosahexanoic acid (DHA), a fatty acid needed for infant growth and development, to the next level.

Using a special snack bar engineered at her request, the scientist is conducting an intervention to investigate whether an infant benefits when the mother's diet during pregnancy is supplemented with DHA. It is research that is not being duplicated anywhere else.

"Several studies, including some of my earlier work, have shown that supplementing an infant's diet with DHA soon after birth may improve the infant's cognitive performance," says Lammi-Keefe. "We also know that a developing fetus's sole source of fats is the mother. Since 70 percent of the brain cells are formed while in the uterus, we want to find out whether, if the mother consumes more DHA, levels in the developing fetus increase as well."

Working in conjunction with Hartford Hospital, Lammi-Keefe's team is recruiting 140 pregnant women for the intervention. The UConn scientist asked an international food company to develop a snack bar - much like a granola bar, but this version contains DHA. The women will be asked to eat two bars a day, three to four days a week, during the last half of their pregnancy, when most of the brain's development occurs.

Lammi-Keefe is hoping this study provides a foundation for making practical dietary recommendations for pregnant women. Cold-water marine fish are the best source of the fatty acid, but for women who don't like fish, or do not consume enough of it, engineered foods, also known as functional foods, may prove useful.

Functional foods are one of the biggest trends crowding their way onto supermarket shelves. Just the push to add more calcium to the diet has resulted in new versions of orange juice, hot cereal, frozen waffles, and eggs; and those are just the beginning of the shopping list for healthful living.

But adding DHA to food is proving to be quite a challenge. It has taken the food company more than a year to come up with a palatable cereal bar. Several weeks ago, the nutritional sciences team conducted a taste test on three prototypes and made a recommendation to the manufacturer. The bars are now undergoing shelf-life tests, before the final version is produced for the UConn study. Lammi-Keefe expects to have the bars in hand by April.

Before any DHA-laced snack is eaten, a blood sample will be taken from each mother, and throughout the pregnancy several more will be drawn. When the woman goes into labor, a research team member will be summoned to the hospital, where critical data about the baby will be collected.

Using non-intrusive instrumentation placed underneath the crib sheet, the infant's sleep patterns will be monitored for 48 hours. Those patterns immediately after birth are related to the maturity of the central nervous system and brain. The monitoring method was developed by Evelyn Thoman, a professor of psychology (now professor emerita), who has studied infant sleep patterns for decades and will assist in the interpretation of this new data.

Lammi-Keefe expects to see different sleep-wake patterns for those infants whose mothers ate the fortified bars compared to those who received the placebos.

The babies will be followed for a year and will undergo a series of cognition tests to assess motor and mental performance. Lammi-Keefe also wants to know if increased consumption of DHA makes a difference down the road. School-readiness of children, or the lack of it, is an issue of concern in many communities.

"Are there things we can measure that will tell us these infants will be better prepared for school?" she asks. "We could be looking at something here that can have implications for society."

For the food industry, the success of this research could be the impetus for a line of functional foods designed for pregnant women who want to give their babies an edge.

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