Animal study finds fetal brain damage
New research indicates that even a modest reduction in a mother's eating can have a negative impact on her baby's brain development.
Previous studies have shown that seriously undernourished pregnant women are more likely to have babies who are smaller, weigh less, and have various health issues. But even a small reduction in food can apparently also affect the brain of the developing fetus.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio gave one group of pregnant baboons a normal diet, while others ate 30 percent less food.
According to lead researcher Thomas McDonald, when the mother had less food to eat, the shortage showed up in certain structures inside the developing infants' brains.
"We have the ability to pinpoint things like synapse formation, connectivity between neurons," McDonald said. "And we found that supporting cells called glial cells are less mature than they should be at specific ages."
Those findings of various problems in brain development were identified by dissecting the brains of the fetal baboons halfway through their normal gestation period - something that obviously wouldn't be possible with human subjects.
The discoveries may help explain what other researchers have learned about human children whose mothers didn't eat enough while pregnant.
"I think what has been found in human studies is behavioral problems, certainly, very decreased attention spans, lower IQ," McDonald said. "I think that's the big thing, when these kids get to school, a lot of these kids just can't concentrate."
The researcher says his study underscores the importance for pregnant women to focus on their baby's needs.
"You don't want to shortchange your baby. You want to give them the best chance in life that you can. And I think good nutrition and really good prenatal care is the best thing a parent can do."