This week in science: High-fat diets during pregnancy and studying drug addiction through Legos

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    This is a chamber where animals can press a lever to receive a food pellet. Usually

    This is a chamber where animals can press a lever to receive a food pellet. Usually

    Four different animal studies suggest that a high-fat diet during pregnancy may have adverse effects on offspring.

    Dr. Bethany Brookshire, a science writer and regular Pulse contributor, says the fats in question include the so-called bad fats, or things found in your butters and oils, and parallels have been seen throughout studies in mice, rats and monkeys.

    “One group looking in mice showed that high-fat diets during pregnancy actually caused changes in the offspring, giving them bad memory function,” said Brookshire. “They weren’t able to find a platform while swimming as easily as mice that had moms who were on a low-fat diet.”

    Brookshire is referencing research out of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, in which female mice were fed diets of about 45 percent fat for four weeks before mating and for two weeks after their pups were born.

    Another study in rats showed that the offspring of the moms on a high-fat diet showed anxiety-like and depressive-like behaviors.

    A similar version of the study was conducted in monkeys at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. There, researchers put female monkeys on a 37 percent fat diet for a full two years. When the brains of their offspring were examined, researchers found that the mothers who ate high-fat diets may have a reduced number of neurons that release dopamine, which comes from reward-related brain structures that end in the prefrontal cortex, playing a role in decision making.

    Brookshire stresses that these findings have not led to new recommendations for pregnant women’s diets.

    “All of the studies were in animals,” she said. “They are not studies in humans, so it’s not really clear if it will translate into humans.”

    Learning through Legos

    Andy Gallup, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Bar Harbor, Maine, has created an operant chamber, or skinner box, entirely out of Lego Mindstorms.

    “It looks like a little square box with a gray floor,” said Brookshire. “There’s a little rotating thing on top that helps to dispense the sugar pellets and there are little levers that come out and lights that turn on. If you’ve ever seen a real metal operant chamber, it looks just like that, only with Legos.”

    The purpose? To teach teens how drug addiction works. The chambers are commonly used in animal behavior, especially for researching drug addiction.

    “You put a mouse in the box and there are levers that come out and a light that comes on,” said Brookshire. “So when the light comes on, the lever comes out and when the mouse hits a lever, it gets something nice. After a little while trying this, the mouse pretty quickly figures out to hang around near the lever waiting for the sugar.”

    Brookshire says this is a good way to train mice, but it’s also a good way to demonstrate how drug addiction works.

    “A lot of drug addiction teaching in high school is very much focused on the whole ‘Just say no’ mentality, which is fine,” said Brookshire. “But they think that it would be a lot more powerful if teens learned more about how addiction worked and they can, by building their own operant chamber out of Legos.”

    The total cost for one of these Lego Mindstorm chambers is around $600 and the hope is that high school students might be able to create their own boxes and then collaborate with local colleges and universities to study drug addiction using lab animals. 

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