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Brain development in newborn linked to iron intake during pregnancy

Posted:  Monday, December 07, 2015

Pregnant women receive advice galore on what best to eat for a healthy baby. Now a novel study has shown how the pregnancy diet can influence the baby’s development even beyond the womb. The study found that inadequate iron intake by expectant mothers can limit the development of the newborn’s brain.

Published in the journal Pediatric Research, this first-of-a-kind study explores the influence of insufficient maternal iron intake during pregnancy on brain development in newborns. Dietary iron is essential for normal growth and development of the foetus; it is also known to enhance brain growth in utero. Consequently, severe iron deficiency can have adverse effects on the growing brain. Unfortunately, nearly half of pregnant women worldwide are anaemic.

As part of the study, the researchers employed a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to obtain brain images of newborns at an average of 20 days after birth. The newborn infants belonged to a sample of 40 h0ealthy adolescent mothers who received prenatal care, but varied in their intake of iron. The researchers used the DTI images to examine the organisation of the grey and white matter in the newborns’ brains.

Interestingly, the researchers found that there was an inverse relationship between the pregnancy iron intake and the complexity of tissue organisation across the grey matter of the newborn brain. This finding is consistent with the current knowledge that newborns with a low iron profile tend to show delayed neurocognitive and general motor development. This suggests that higher dietary iron intake is linked to greater maturity and complexity of cortical grey matter.

The researchers explained the findings saying that, "Neurons become increasingly more complex in their extensions and connections as the brain matures, and the maturational delays reported previously in animal models and human behavioural studies of iron deficiency would predict that lower iron intake would produce neurons in cortical grey matter that are structurally less complex and more immature.”

Although further investigation is needed, this study sheds light on the influence of the pregnancy diet on the brain development in offspring beyond the womb.

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