Expectant mom's flu exposure stunts baby's brain development

January 25, 2010 by Terry Devitt

(PhysOrg.com) -- For expectant mothers, catching even a mild case of the flu could stunt brain development in their newborns, according to a new study conducted in rhesus macaques.

Writing in the most recent online edition (Jan. 22) of the journal , a team led by Christopher Coe of the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports that flu infections in pregnant monkeys resulted in significant reductions in in baby monkeys, particularly in areas that in humans are associated with language, and the combining of information from different senses.

"The effects were greater for gray matter, which reflects cell number and size in the cortex, but we did see some reductions in , too," explains Coe, a UW-Madison professor of psychology and the director of the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology.

The new findings are telling because they demonstrate that risk to expectant mothers from common disease can shape postnatal development and elevate the risk of behavioral and later in life. It has been estimated that as many as 11 percent of pregnant women become infected with influenza during pregnancy.

The new study explored the effects of mild infections in 12 pregnant macaques compared with seven control pregnancies. The offspring of both groups were subjected to structural of their brains at one year of age.

In the year-old offspring of animals exposed to a strain of seasonal flu that also commonly infects humans, the team led by Coe found a 4 to 7 percent reduction in the number of cells in regions of the that compose the compared to animals who's mothers did not have an infection during pregnancy.

Finding the differences in brain size still present at 1 year of age, Coe notes, suggests the effect may be permanent. "Our feeling is that if it is still there at 1 year, it's not going to go away," he says.

The study, which was conducted in collaboration with Sarah J. Short and John Gilmore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is suggestive that flu exposure in utero may contribute to developmental and psychiatric conditions such as autism and possibly to schizophrenia later in life.

"We think the causation (of the reduction in brain volume) is the mother's response to the infection and that it may skew the developmental trajectory of the brain," Coe explains. "It's a cautionary tale for humans, especially in the context of clinical studies in people and what we know from studies of rodents."

Coe and his colleagues, including Christopher Olsen from the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, speculate that the affects the developing fetus indirectly through the mother's inflammatory and immune response to the virus. In primates, including humans, the inflammatory response is more pronounced in the third trimester of pregnancy, the time when the animals in the new study were infected.

The take-home message of the research, Coe argues, has compelling public health implications: Pregnant women or those who expect to conceive during flu season should be vaccinated. vaccinations are widely regarded in the medical community and by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as safe for pregnant women.

"The safe thing to do is to get vaccinated," says Coe. "This study would say that's the smarter and healthier choice."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Researchers link epigenetic aging to bipolar disorder

December 12, 2017
Bipolar disorder may involve accelerated epigenetic aging, which could explain why persons with the disorder are more likely to have - and die from - age-related diseases, according to researchers from The University of Texas ...

Researchers find common psychological traits in group of Italians aged 90 to 101

December 12, 2017
In remote Italian villages nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains lives a group of several hundred citizens over the age of 90. Researchers at the University of Rome La Sapienza and University of California San ...

Your mood depends on the food you eat, and what you should eat changes as you get older

December 11, 2017
Diet and dietary practices differentially affect mental health in young adults versus older adults, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Twitter can reveal our shared mood

December 11, 2017
In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the University of Bristol have analysed mood indicators in text from 800 million anonymous messages posted on Twitter. These tweets were found to reflect strong patterns ...

New therapy can help schizophrenia sufferers re-engage socially

December 11, 2017
A new therapy aimed at helping young people suffering from schizophrenia to reconnect and engage with the world around them has had promising results, according to a new University of Sussex-led study.

Certain books can increase infant learning during shared reading, study shows

December 11, 2017
Parents and pediatricians know that reading to infants is a good thing, but new research shows reading books that clearly name and label people and objects is even better.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.