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Reduced diet in early pregnancy stunts fetal brains

Posted on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 · Volume: XLIV · Issue: 2


Peter Nathanielsz, M.D., Ph.D., is director of the Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Research in the UT Health Science Center San Antonio School of Medicine.
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Peter Nathanielsz, M.D., Ph.D., is director of the Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Research in the UT Health Science Center San Antonio School of Medicine.clear graphic

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Contact: Will Sansom, 210-567-2579

SAN ANTONIO (Jan. 17, 2011) — Eating less during early pregnancy impaired fetal brain development in a nonhuman primate model, researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio have learned.

The researchers found decreased formation of cell-to-cell connections, cell division and amounts of growth factors in the fetuses of mothers fed a reduced diet during the first half of pregnancy. “This is a critical time window when many of the neurons as well as the supporting cells in the brain are born,” said Peter Nathanielsz, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Research in the Health Science Center School of Medicine.

The study included collaborators at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR) in San Antonio and Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. The team compared two groups of baboon mothers located at SFBR’s Southwest National Primate Research Center. One group of baboons ate as much as they wanted during the first half of pregnancy while the other group was fed 30 percent less, a level of nutrition similar to what many prospective mothers in the U.S. experience.

Nutritional environment impacts fetal brains
“Our collaboration allowed us to determine that the nutritional environment impacts the fetal brain at both the cellular and molecular levels,” said SFBR’s Laura Cox, Ph.D. “That is, we found dysregulation of hundreds of genes, many of which are known to be key regulators in cell growth and development, indicating that nutrition plays a major role during fetal development by regulating the basic cellular machinery.”

Similar situation experienced by those with food insecurity
It is known that marked nutrient restriction, such as in famine conditions, adversely affects development of the fetal brain. Senior author Thomas McDonald, Ph.D., also of the Health Science Center, said the study “is the first demonstration of major effects caused by the levels of food insecurity that occur in sections of U.S. society and demonstrates the vulnerability of the fetus to moderate reduction in nutrients.”

Dr. Nathanielsz noted:
  • In teenage pregnancy, the developing fetus is deprived of nutrients by the needs of the growing mother;
  • In pregnancies late in reproductive life, a woman’s arteries are stiffer and the blood supply to the uterus decreases, inevitably affecting nutrient delivery to the fetus;
  • Diseases such as preeclampsia or high blood pressure in pregnancy can lead to decreased function of the placenta with decreased delivery of nutrients to the fetus.
“This study is a further demonstration of the importance of good maternal health and diet,” Dr. McDonald said. “It supports the view that poor diets in pregnancy can alter development of fetal organs, in this case the brain, in ways that will have lifetime effects on offspring, potentially lowering IQ and predisposing to behavioral problems.”

Long-term effects
Developmental programming of lifetime health has been shown to play a role in later development of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In light of this new finding, research should focus on effects of developmental programming in the context of autism, depression, schizophrenia and other brain disorders.

The study, published in the Jan. 20 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also forces researchers to review the commonly held notion that during pregnancy the mother is able to protect the fetus from dietary challenges such as poor nutrition, Dr. McDonald said.

The nonhuman primate model’s brain developmental stages are very close to those of human fetuses, the researchers noted. Most previous research in this area was conducted in rats.

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UT Medicine San Antonio is the clinical practice of the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. With more than 700 doctors — all faculty from the School of Medicine — UT Medicine is the largest medical practice in Central and South Texas, with expertise in more than 60 different branches of medicine. Primary care doctors and specialists see patients in private practice at UT Medicine’s clinical home, the Medical Arts & Research Center (MARC), located in the South Texas Medical Center at 8300 Floyd Curl Drive, San Antonio 78229. Most major health plans are accepted, and there are clinics and physicians at several local and regional hospitals, including CHRISTUS Santa Rosa, University Hospital and Baptist Medical Center. Call 210-450-9000 to schedule an appointment, or visit the Web site at www.UTMedicine.org for a complete listing of clinics and phone numbers.

 
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