Test by high school student working with researchers reveals food additive’s direct effect on neuronal ability
CALGARY – A Calgary researcher is getting ready to publish a groundbreaking study that links a popular food additive to reduced growth in the brain cells of snails — work that could have major implications for children’s health.
Not bad for a teenager.
Michelle Ah-Seng is a 17-year-old high school student from Cochrane, just west of Calgary. She’s also the lead researcher on a University of Calgary study that offers the first solid proof that high concentrations of MSG, an additive used to boost flavour in everything from fast food to canned soups, can stunt the growth of brain cells.
“It has been shown that (in a pregnant woman), MSG will cross through the placenta and can affect the fetus,” said Ah-Seng.
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“Fetuses are still developing, and their brain cells are starting to grow and starting to reach out to each other. If MSG has been inhibiting or stunting the growth, then the cells basically won’t reach out to one another.”
Ah-Seng is one of 22 Grade 11 students spending six weeks of their summer vacation in labs and clinics at the University of Calgary as part of the 2008 Heritage Youth Researcher Summer Program, funded by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research.
Her project involved directly dosing brain cells culled from snails with a concentration of monosodium glutamate equal to what might commonly be found in human blood or cerebral spinal fluid after eating a meal containing the additive, such as a bag of chips. Not only did the MSG inhibit growth of the snail’s brain cells, it also limited communication between them. The implications for human health aren’t hard to infer.
“There’s no difference between a snail brain cell and a rat or a human brain cell, only that there are fewer of them and (they’re) larger,” said Naweed Syed, Ah-Seng’s supervisor and a neuroscientist with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary’s faculty of medicine.
“This is the first unequivocal evidence, to my knowledge, that MSG has direct effect on neuronal ability. I think it’s very exciting.”
Ah-Seng points to previous studies that have examined the link between MSG exposure on rat fetuses and increased obesity and learning disabilities after birth, as well as links to neurogenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and ALS.
“It’s very important, especially for pregnant women or people getting into their elder ages, to be aware of how much MSG (you’re) consuming,” she said.
The next step, said Syed, is to get the results published in a scientific journal. Ah-Seng plans to continue her work during evenings and weekends in her last year of high school to validate the findings.
“The stuff she has done (in six weeks), I would call it equivalent to a master’s degree,” said Syed. “The only thing I hope is that I never have to compete with this young mind. It’s absolutely incredible.”
Ah-Seng said she plans to curtail her MSG consumption as much as possible. “I’m sure to be more aware of how I consume different sorts of foods, because it’s everywhere,” she said. “You have to check the ingredients label. It’s very important to be aware of how things will affect your health.”
Michelle Magnan, Calgary Herald; Canwest News Service
Published: Friday, August 15
Source: Edmonton Journal