A new study has found that a mother's iron deficiency early in pregnancy may have a profound and long-lasting effect on the brain development of the child, even if the lack of iron is not enough to cause severe anemia.
Scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center believe their research underscores the need for monitoring a pregnant woman's iron status beyond anemia.
It is well established that iron-deficient babies develop more slowly and show brain abnormalities such as slow language learning and behavioral problems.
But until now investigators did not know the degree to which iron deficiency in pregnancy is associated with these impairments, and when during gestation the deficiency has the most impact on the central nervous system.
"What convinced us to conduct the present study were our preliminary data suggesting that cells involved in building the embryonic brain during the first trimester were most sensitive to low iron levels," said Margot Mayer-Proschel, the lead researcher.
Investigators, therefore, sought more details using a highly controlled animal model system, as it would not be feasible to study iron concentrations in developing human embryos.
They found that the critical period begins in the weeks prior to conception and extends through the first trimester to the onset of the second trimester. Iron deficiency that starts in the third trimester did not seem to harm the developing brain.
By studying the relationship between maternal iron intake and fetal iron levels through a diet study, the team was able to pin down the critical periods of gestation when the developing central nervous system was most vulnerable.
They measured the resulting brain function using a common, non-invasive test called an auditory brainstem response analysis, or ABR.
The study was published in the scientific journal PLoS One.