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Obese Mothers' Babies' Brains May Develop Abnormally

Update Date: Feb 11, 2013 12:45 PM EST

A study conducted by researchers from Tufts University and Tufts Medical Center has found that obesity in mothers has been linked to abnormal brain development in fetuses. These abnormalities could be spotted as early as the second trimester of pregnancy. The findings hold particular weight because, in the United States, as many as 1 in 3 mothers is classified as obese, and that number is only set to increase.

It may seem apparent that obesity in mothers may affect their children's risk of obesity as well, but this study was the first that examined the role that obesity may play in gestating fetuses' brain development. The study was conducted at Tufts Medical Center's Mother Infant Research Institute. Researchers examined gene expression of the fetuses in 16 pregnant women, eight of whom were classified as obese and eight of whom were classified as being at a healthy weight.

While fetuses are gestating, their brains undergo a process called apoptosis. That word means that cells die. While it may seem like a negative experience, these cell deaths are an important process for neurodevelopment. It is thought of as a neural pruning process, as the brain clears the path for new growth. Researchers found that, among the offspring of obese mothers, the fetuses had decreased apoptosis, particularly in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus.

The cerebral cortex is important in the development of attention, language and consciousness. The hippocampus plays an important role in the development of memory, both long-term and short-term, and the navigation of space.

It is not yet known what role decreased rates of apoptosis may play, but it may shed some light on certain conditions that are more common in the children of obese mothers. For example, obese mothers are more likely to give birth to children with autism spectrum disorder.

The study will be presented this week at the annual meeting for the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in San Francisco.

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