Poor maternal diet may affect babies’ brains and lead to risk of lifelong obesity

Researchers that used mice to explore the link between maternal diet and babies’ disposition to become obese adults later in life, believes they have found a link.

The study aimed to shed further light on the molecular processes underlying the previously reported phenomenon that 'heavy mothers have heavy babies' - also referred to as metabolic programming.

The team, led by Professor Jens Brüning of the Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research and Professor Tamas Horvath of the Yale University School of Medicine, published its findings in Cell.

They suggested that mothers who consume a large amount of fat during the third trimester (weeks 28-40) may be putting their children at risk for lifelong obesity and other related metabolic disorders.

The team also noted that previous studies in humans have shown that mothers who are obese or have diabetes put their children at risk for metabolic problems. However, the exact mechanisms and brain circuits are still unknown and older studies failed to pinpoint the most critical stage of pregnancy where maternal nutrition has the greatest impact on children's health.

To address these questions the authors used mice to examine and identify the periods of hypothalamic neurocircuit development that are most strongly affected by a high fat diet in mothers.

They found that female mice fed a high fat diet during lactation had offspring with abnormal neuronal connections in the hypothalamus, as well as altered insulin signalling in this brain circuit. As a result, their offspring remained overweight and had abnormalities in glucose metabolism throughout their adult life.

"Our study suggests that expecting mothers can have major impact on the long-term metabolic health of their children by properly controlling nutrition during this critical developmental period of the offspring," said Horvath.