A new study reveals maternal diet during pregnancy can have dramatic implications for fetal brain development and can impact short term memory in adults.
Poor protein in a mother’s diet in early pregnancy, around the time of conception, can have a lasting effect on brain development, according to research recently published by University of Southampton academics.
The project, led by Dr Sandrine Willaime-Morawek, in collaboration with Professor Tom Fleming, is the first to clearly demonstrate that poor maternal nutrition during the first days of pregnancy in mice, known as the pre-implantation period, can have adverse effects on early brain development and long-lasting consequences in adults.
The study using cell cultures and mice reveals that a maternal diet low in protein during this critical period around conception reduces the production of neural stem cells, the cells that make our nerve cells in the brain, leading to errors in the timing and number of nerve cells formed and ultimately resulting in poor short-term memory in the adult.
Whilst it is known that a mother’s diet during early pregnancy is crucial to a baby’s development, if it is poor, it increases the risk of diseases in the child’s later life such as cardiovascular diseases and schizophrenia.
Previous studies have shown that protein reduction in the diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding can damage the brain of the baby, leading to lasting effects for coordination and cognitive function. However, the importance of nutrition at the very start of pregnancy for brain development has been unknown, until now.
Dr Willaime-Morawek said: “I am delighted the study has been published. The paper represents years of work by a very hard-working PhD student Joanna Gould, and numerous medical and biomedical students in my team.
“Our original research shows that poor maternal nutrition from conception in a mouse model adversely affects brain development and adult memory.
“Significant effects were found with only a mild nutritional challenge –half of the recommended protein amount – highlighting the significance of this period for adult health.”
The research builds on ongoing work in Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DoHaD) at Southampton, and was carried out by academics from Clinical and Experimental Sciences and the Centre for Human Development, Stem Cells and Regeneration, in Medicine, as well as colleagues in Biological Sciences, and academics from the Centre for Biomarker Research at the University of Huddersfield.