Public Release: 12-Dec-2016
Famine alters metabolism for successive generations
The increased risk of hyperglycemia associated with prenatal exposure to famine is also passed down to the next generation, according to a new study of hundreds of families affected by widespread starvation in mid-20th Century China.
Hyperglycemia is a high blood glucose level and a common sign of diabetes. The new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that hundreds of people who were gestated during a horrific famine that afflicted China between 1959 and 1961 had significantly elevated odds of both hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. Even more striking, however, was that their children also had significantly higher odds of hyperglycemia, even though the famine had long since passed when they were born.
Because the study only shows an association between metabolic changes and in utero famine exposure, it can't prove causality or the biological mechanism underlying a cause. But prior research on the effects of famine in humans and in laboratory animals suggest that famine does indeed cause such health risks, the study authors said.
"It is indeed a remarkable finding that is consistent what with what one would have expected from prior findings from animal experiments," said lead author Jie Li, a Brown postdoctoral fellow.
A prior team's study in mice showed a multigenerational effect on metabolism, and other studies of famine exposure in people have produced evidence of changes in the endocrine systems and in prenatal gene expression in reproductive systems.
"Genetic, epigenetic reprogramming, and subsequent gene-diet interaction are all possible explanations," he said. "By establishing this Chinese famine cohort of families, we hope to conduct a much more comprehensive and in-depth assessment of the whole genome and epigenome along with metabolic biomarkers of these participants moving forward."