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.