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Restricted diet in early pregnancy harms baby's brain

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Diet during pregnancy

Diet is found to play a major role in fetal brain development early in pregnancy.

Scientists say dietary restrictions in the first stages of pregnancy can adversely affect fetal brain development, leading to lower IQ and behavioral problems. Researchers say diet impacts how a baby's brain develops at a cellular level. Poor nutrition during pregnancy can lead to childhood behavioral problems and lower IQ.

Researchers who studied pregnant baboons that they say provides information that parallels human fetal development, found fetuses of primates given limited food in the first half of pregnancy experienced a decrease in cell-to-cell connections, growth factors and cell division. The observations show the importance of good nutrition, especially in the early months of pregnancy to ensure an unborn baby’s brain grows and develops normally.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is a collaborative effort between scientists from Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR) the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) and Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany who compared two groups of baboons to find the negative impact of dietary restriction during pregnancy.

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In the study, one group of primates were given a diet that mimics nutrition found among pregnant women in the United States, that provided 30 percent less food than the group allowed to eat as much as desired. Previous research had been done in rats, and this is the first to look at diet and fetal development in primates.

The researchers found “the nutritional environment impacts the fetal brain at both the cellular and molecular levels,” according to 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.”

Senior author Thomas McDonald, Ph.D., of UTHSCSA says the finding support the view that diet is essential for normal fetal development, and 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 I.Q. and predisposing to behavioral problems.”

Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research News and Publications