ScienceDaily (Jan. 18, 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 report.
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.
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.
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.