As per the results of studies reported at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction (held between the 18th to 22nd of July at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh), mothers' health in the days and weeks prior to becoming pregnant may determine the health of offspring much later in life. These studies demonstrate that maternal nutrition, protein intake and level of fat in the diet may cause epigenetic changes in the developing fetus that can have long-term health consequences.
Summaries of their findings are as follows:
Too Much of a Sweet Thing? Maternal Diabetes and Embryo Development
The time between ovulation and conception may be a critical one for maternal and fetal health, according to Kelle Moley, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine. In mouse studies, she found that subtle differences in maternal metabolism had long-lasting effects. Indeed, when Dr. Moley transferred embryos from a diabetic mouse into a non-diabetic mouse shortly after egg implantation, she noted neural tube defects, heart defects, limb deformities and growth defects in offspring. These findings indicate that we may need to re-direct our ideas about maternal health to the time prior to pregnancy, she says.
Take Your Vitamins Before Becoming Pregnant
Are we encouraging pregnant women to take vitamins when it may be too late to impact the health of a growing fetus? According to Kevin Sinclair, Ph.D., University of Nottingham, maternal nutrition even at the time of conception can alter fetal development. In studies with sheep and rodents, he found that offspring of mothers with vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiencies were fatter, became insulin resistant and had higher blood pressure by the time they reached middle-age, demonstrating that early molecular changes may not manifest themselves for many years.
Low Protein Diet May Lead to "Jumpy" Offspring
Low protein levels in female mice during the first few moments of conception, when the egg is still dividing, caused abnormal growth, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and jumpy behavior in their offspring. According to Tom Fleming, Ph.D., University of Southampton, mice born to mothers with low protein grew bigger - extracting as much nutrients as they could to compensate for poor nutrition while in the womb.
Beyond Genetics: How Dormant Memories Can Impact Later-Life Events
According to epigenetic theory, changes in the genome can happen at any time through the impact of environmental factors on the expression of genes over time. One of the most critical periods is early life when epigenetic memories are created that may impact a person's susceptibility to disease later in life, says Shuk-mei Ho, Ph.D., University of Cincinnati Medical Center. According to her research, these "memories" may remain dormant until an environmental trigger brings them to the surface, modifying risk for disease.