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Dietary restriction early in pregnancy has negative impact on on fetal brain development

A research team that includes scientists from the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR) reported today that inadequate nutrition during early pregnancy impairs fetal brain development.

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, in baboons located at SFBR’s Southwest National Primate Research Center.

The study, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded by the National Institutes of Health and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, also included scientists from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) and Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany.

“Our collaboration allowed us to determine that the nutritional environment impacts the fetal brain at both the cellular and molecular levels,” said 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.”

The team compared two groups of baboon mothers, one eating as much as they wanted during the first half of pregnancy and the other receiving 30 percent less food, a level of nutrition similar to what many prospective mothers in the U.S. experience. The nonhuman primate model’s brain developmental stages are very close to those of human fetuses, the researchers noted. Most previous research in this area was conducted in rats.

“This study is a further demonstration of the importance of good maternal health and diet,” said senior author Thomas McDonald, Ph.D., of UTHSCSA. “It supports the view 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.”

While it is known that marked nutrient restriction, such as in famine conditions, adversely affects development of the fetal brain. McDonald 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.”

Researchers now must review the commonly held notion that during pregnancy the mother is able to protect the fetus from dietary challenges such as poor nutrition, McDonald said.

“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.

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. This new finding provides impetus for researchers to look into the effects of developmental programming in the context of autism, depression, schizophrenia and other brain disorders.

Laura Cox can be reached through Joe Carey, SFBR’s Vice President for Public Affairs, at 210-258-9437.

SFBR is one of the world’s leading independent biomedical research institutions dedicated to advancing health worldwide through innovative biomedical research.  Located on a 200-acre campus on the northwest side of San Antonio, Texas, SFBR partners with hundreds of researchers and institutions around the world, targeting advances in the fight against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, psychiatric disorders, problems of pregnancy, AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, parasitic infections and a host of other infectious diseases.  For more information on SFBR, go to