Research at the MGH is interwoven throughout more than 30 departments, centers and units and is conducted with the support and guidance of the MGH Research Institute. The Research Roundup is a monthly series highlighting studies, news and events.

Effect of folic acid on child brain development

Everything from cereal to pasta to pancake mix seems to have folic acid listed as an ingredient. This is due to government-mandated folic acid fortification in grain products that was rolled out in the late 1990s. In a recent study, a team led by Joshua Roffman, MD, director of the Brain Genomics Lab in the Department of Psychiatry, looked at brain images of nearly 1,400 children who were born just before, during or after this rollout.

Using MRI scans, they found that children and adolescents who were exposed to folic acid fortification during gestation showed changes in brain development that may protect against psychotic symptoms. Given previous evidence that risks for schizophrenia, autism and other serious mental illnesses begin in the womb, these new findings open the door to a range of new studies that could lead to strategies using folic acid to protect against the onset of mental illness, similar to other public health interventions such as vaccines.

New genetic insights related to food choices

For those who have a hard time saying no to that extra piece of cake, it might not be due to a lack of willpower. A new study suggests that – in addition to demographic, cultural and psychological factors – our genes may make some of us more likely to crave unhealthy foods than others.

Jordi Merino, PhD, from the Department of Medicine, and his team identified two new gene variants that influence dietary intake and confirmed two previously known variants. These findings could improve understanding of appetite control, help identify individuals who are at higher risk of unhealthy food choices and point to new targets for drugs to control eating behavior.

Analyzing and comparing gut bacteria in mothers and newborns

While it’s usually easy to notice if a baby has its mother’s eyes, other shared traits aren’t as easy to see. Infants acquire their microbiomes – the community of bacteria in their gut – in part from their mothers, but precisely how the microbiome is established at birth and develops during early life is relatively unknown.

A study, led by Ramnik Xavier, MD, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in the Department of Gastroenterology, examined the microbiomes of 44 infants and their mothers and provided a comprehensive analysis of which bacteria are transferred from mother to infant and how gut microbial communities develop during a baby’s early days.

New low-cost point-of-care device for diagnosing aggressive lymphoma

In resource-poor countries, pathologists and the equipment needed to diagnose disease are often in short supply. Cesar Castro, MD, and a team from the Center for Systems Biology have developed a portable, fully automated device that has been trained by a computer-driven algorithm to analyze patient samples and separate cancerous and non-cancerous cells.

The team found that the device provided an accurate diagnosis 95 percent of the time. This new approach could ease the demand on existing pathology services and equipment, engaging more individuals in proper cancer care.

Read more articles from the 08/10/18 Hotline issue.