Vitamin D vital for gene expression in developing brains

March 24, 2015 by Samantha Saw
The study investigated the gene expression of four neurotrophic genes responsible for the production of proteins which relate to the survival, development and function of neurons (nerve cells). Credit: Bethany Brown

Vitamin D deficiency in mothers leading up to and during pregnancy has fundamental consequences for their offspring's brain development, researchers from University of Western Australia and the Telethon Kids Institute have confirmed.

The collaborative study used a mouse model to investigate prenatal D deficiency.

The researchers found that body length, head size and lateral ventricle volume were reduced in the offspring of vitamin D deficient individuals and most importantly, gene expression in the brain was significantly altered.

Female BALB/c mice (albino inbred laboratory strain mice; Mus musculus ) were placed on either a vitamin D controlled diet or a vitamin D devoid diet, five weeks prior to and during pregnancy.

Foetal brains were analysed for morphology and gene expression at 14.5 days and 17.5 days of embryonic development.

"Day 14.5 is about two-thirds of the way through a mouse pregnancy, the foundation of the brain has been laid down, but there is still a lot of development to do and day 17.5 is just before birth," UWA School of Anatomy Physiology and Human Biology researcher Dr Caitlin Wyrwoll says.

"This gives us a maturational read out of the brain."

The study investigated the gene expression of four neurotrophic genes responsible for the production of proteins which relate to the survival, development and function of neurons (nerve cells).

Speech and "feel good" protein impacted

Of the four genes, forkhead box protein p2 (Foxp2) and tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) had the most dramatic change due to the induced vitamin D deficiency in the mothers.

Gene expression of Foxp2, involved in speech and linguistic , was reduced by 30-32 per cent in the pups of vitamin D mothers at day 14.5.

"Foxp2 seems to be very important in terms of language and there is suggestion it might also be disrupted in some cases of autism spectrum disorders," Dr Wyrwoll says.

At day 17.5, almost the full term of a mouse pregnancy, protein staining for Foxp2 of the cortex showed a 69 per cent reduction of proteins in female offspring of vitamin D deficient mothers.

TH expression was also significantly altered in the brains of pups of vitamin D deficient mothers.

TH is the rate-limiting enzyme involved in synthesis of the "feel-good" chemical dopamine.

The researchers found a 67 per cent reduction in TH at day 17.5 in female pups of vitamin D deficient mothers.

She says this study highlights the important role vitamin D plays in the early stages of .

Explore further: Excessive vitamin intake in pregnant rats impacts food choices in offspring

More information: "Maternal vitamin D deficiency alters fetal brain development in the BALB/c mouse," Behavioural Brain Research, Volume 286, 1 June 2015, Pages 192-200, ISSN 0166-4328,

Related Stories

Pathway between gut and liver regulates bone mass

June 9, 2014

Researchers have uncovered a previously unknown biological process involving vitamin B12 and taurine that regulates the production of new bone cells. This pathway could be a potential new target for osteoporosis treatment.

Foetus suffers when mother lacks vitamin C

November 16, 2012

Maternal vitamin C deficiency during pregnancy can have serious consequences for the foetal brain. And once brain damage has occurred, it cannot be reversed by vitamin C supplements after birth. This is shown through new ...

Who benefits from vitamin D?

August 13, 2013

Studying the expression of genes that are dependent on vitamin D makes it possible to identify individuals who will benefit from vitamin D supplementation, shows a University of Eastern Finland study published recently in ...

Vitamin D deficiency may compromise immune function

February 25, 2014

Older individuals who are vitamin D deficient also tend to have compromised immune function, according to new research accepted for publication in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM).

Recommended for you

Mothers and infants connect through song

February 16, 2017

As one of the first records of human music, infant-directed singing permeates cultural boundaries and parenting traditions. Unlike other forms of caregiving, the act of mothers singing to infants is a universal behavior that ...

Study finds naps may help preschoolers learn

February 8, 2017

Research has shown that naps play an important role in sustaining new learning in infants. A new study from the University of Arizona suggests naptime could have a similar effect on language learning in preschool-age children.

Researchers create a song that makes babies happy

February 6, 2017

Plenty of research has looked at adults' emotional responses to music. But research with babies is more piecemeal and eclectic, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of asking them what they like. Researchers know that babies ...


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.