Maternal malaria infection during pregnancy alters the formation of blood vessels in the brains of exposed offspring, revealed a new study. The findings suggested that this may result in learning and memory related problems in offspring as the exposed fetus has smaller blood vessels in its brain than the control fetus.
The researchers said, "These results highlight a novel mechanism by which malaria in pregnancy may alter the neurocognitive development of millions of children prior to birth."
For the study, the researchers specifically examined neurocognitive function in mice of normal birth weight that had been exposed to but not themselves infected with malaria in the uterus. They found that young mice that had been exposed to malaria in pregnancy have impaired learning and memory and show depressive-like behavior that persists to adulthood.
These neurocognitive impairments were found to be associated with decreased tissue levels of major neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) in specific regions of the brain. By imaging blood vessels in the uterus, the research team also saw changes in neurovascular development in the brain of malaria-exposed mouse fetuses.
The findings appeared in PLOS Pathogens.