Although stressed mothers passed along binge eating-related epigenetic tags on their DNA, the mouse pups' tendency to binge surfaced only when they too were subjected to stressful situations,the researchers said.
"The price we pay later in life – whether it's psychiatric disorders, metabolic syndromes, or heart-related illnesses – is heavily impacted by the way your brain was programmed early in life," said Alon Chen, a neurobiologist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel.
"We have established a model where we can actually show that early life stress increases the likelihood of binge eating in females," Chen said.
For the study, detailed in the journal Cell Metabolism, the researchers genetically engineered a line of mice, where they manipulated the hormone system that controls cortisol – stress hormones – release to increase the anxiety levels of pregnant mothers during their third trimester.
The mouse pups' tendency to binge only surfaced when they were placed in a stressful situation where the researchers restricted their access to food.
In addition, measuring the eating habits of stressed mice showed that those born to stressed mothers were more likely to eat large amounts of food during short windows of time.
However, putting the young mice on a diet with "balanced" levels of nutrients such as Vitamin B12 and folate, the researchers were able to prevent their binge eating.
All of this underscores the importance of avoiding stressful situations as much as possible during pregnancy, the researchers added.