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Blueprint for a Healthy Future

November 2004

by Anne-Kathleen Kreger

We’re all familiar with the old adage, "You are what you eat." But today, scientific research encourages us to consider this axiom from another angle: "You are what your mother ate."

This modern-day twist is the result of research in prenatal programming, such as the work of Peter Nathanielsz, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor and director of the Health Science Center’s Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Research.

According to Dr. Nathanielsz, new mothers, who are often concerned about preparing their babies’ nurseries, also should be concerned about adequately preparing the baby’s first home – the womb.

Dr. Nathanielsz is the author of "Life in the Womb: The Origin of Health and Disease" and "The Prenatal Prescription: A State-of-the-Art Program for Optimal Prenatal Care." He has presented his work at a number of international conferences and discussed his work with dozens of media personalities, including Katie Couric of NBC’s "Today Show."

Dr. Nathanielsz and his research team are studying the developmental origins of health and disease. Theirs is the only group in the world using baboons to study the effects of poor nutrition during pregnancy.

"We are studying moderate undernutrition," Dr. Nathanielsz said. "This is the sort of thing that you would find in developed countries, in the underprivileged sections of the community."

Assistant Professor Mark Nijland, Ph.D., studies how nutrient restriction during pregnancy affects the development of the fetal cardiovascular system. "This could lead to negative consequences later in life, such as diabetes and high blood pressure," Dr. Nijland said.

Undernutrition during pregnancy also can affect brain development. Thomas McDonald, Ph.D., and Cun Li, M.D., both assistant professors, are studying how undernutrition affects the pituitary-adrenal gland – or the stress axis.

Assistant Professor Natalia Schlabritz, M.D., is studying the development of the mother-fetus supply line – the placenta.

Dr. Nathanielsz also studies premature labor. He and Dr. McDonald were the first to show that, in sheep, the fetal brain sends the signal to begin the labor process.

For mothers-to-be, Dr. Nathanielsz’s research brings hope for the future. One day, these mothers may be able to prepare their babies not only for a comfortable childhood – but also for a lifetime of good health.

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