Reducing diet early in pregnancy stunts fetal brain development

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 reported today.

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 . "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 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.

Hundreds of genes involved

"Our collaboration allowed us to determine that the nutritional environment impacts the 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."

Moderate versus severe reduction

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 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.
'Lifetime effects'

"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."

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.

Mother's protection

The study, published this week in 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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Provided by University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
Citation: Reducing diet early in pregnancy stunts fetal brain development (2011, January 17) retrieved 24 June 2019 from
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User comments

Jan 17, 2011

A woman eating less than she normally would for just herself is not good for when she is eating for two. There goes another earmark down the drain.

But not to worry. It's just a lump of pre-cancerous something or other anyway, of which there are already too many on Gaia. I know that because the leftists here told me so.

Jan 18, 2011
the commonly held notion that during pregnancy the mother is able to protect the fetus from dietary challenges such as poor nutrition

This is the most stupid I ever heard! Even in Asian toilets(C-Geokstr), most husbands often go without adequate food to be able to afford more and better food for their pregnant partners. When confronted with food, death and survival issues on frequent basis, no advanced healthcare for pregnancy complications to speak of, nutritional and propagational insurance is instinctive. For more affluent, well educated persons, there is even a theory of "fetus training/influencing", which posits adverse influences such as loud noises, emotional extremes, arguments, negative thoughts and other traumas involving the mother will control the quality of the milk delivered to the fetus, its wellbeing and development. Has some place become so "civilized" that the women had shed all their instincts,leave it all to the medicos, and sue when things all f^^k up?

Feb 09, 2011
And in any case, there are plenty of teenage or older mothers who give birth to perfectly healthy babies. I'm in no way defending teenage births, I'm just saying that there is more to the issue than barely eating as much as you want during pregnancy. Like quality of the food, nutritional value, vitamins, exercises of the mother, stress levels and so on. Otherwise women would simply eat tons of chocolate and ice cream.

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