Mother's High Fat Diet Increases Birth Defect Risk
British scientists have found a link between mothers who eat a high fat diet before and during pregnancy and an increased risk for certain birth defects, such as congenital heart disease and cleft palate.
Jamie Bentham of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University studied mice that were genetically altered to be lacking in a gene called Cited2. A deficiency in this gene is known to influence risk for congenital heart defects, such as atrial isomerism, where the left-right asymmetry of the heart is disturbed.
Half of the mice were fed a high fat diet before and during pregnancy, while the other half received a more balanced diet. The researchers studied the development of the babies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The offspring of the mice given the high fat diet had a sevenfold increased risk of cleft palate and double the risk of atrial isomerism, suggesting that a combination of diet and genetic defect was responsible. The high fat diet appeared to interact with the Cited2 deficiency to reduce the expression of another gene called Pitx2, which is necessary for heart development and the body’s natural asymmetry.
“These are very important findings as we have been able to show for the first time that gene-environment interactions can affect development of the embryo in the womb,” said Bentham. “We know that poor diet and defective genes can both affect development, but here we have seen the two combine to cause a much greater risk of developing health problems and more severe problems.”
“We are excited by this as it suggests that congenital heart defects may be preventable by measures such as altering maternal diet,” he said in a statement about the findings.
About one in every 33 children born in the United States has some form of birth defect, according to data from the CDC. Congenital heart disease is the most common form of birth defect, and previous studies have shown that children born to mothers who have diabetes or who are overweight have an increased risk of it.
Most birth defects occur within the first three months of pregnancy, so healthy behaviors should be in place before a woman becomes pregnant to minimize the risks.
The study is published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics.