Researchers have also discovered one reason why maternal stress affects unborn males more than females
Neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia disproportionately affect males and are directly related to early life distress caused by maternal stress and other factors that may be affected by nutrition. But the reasons behind these male-specific effects are not well understood. Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine and the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Disorders have discovered possible causes of male weakness in the womb, and learned that a special maternal nutritional supplement called docosahexanoic acid (DHA) might protect against the effect of maternal stress on unborn males during early development. .
“We believe that differences in the metabolic requirements of male and female fetuses early in the first trimester, along with dynamic differences in the way male and female placentas interact with environmental factors, contribute to an increased risk of developing male neurodevelopmental disorders at a later time. From Life said chief author David Beversdorf, MD, professor of radiology, neuroscience and psychology at MU.
Beversdorf worked with lead investigator Eldin Jašarevic, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a team of researchers on the study that involved grouping 40 mice into four different groups. The mothers of the first group received a standard diet and did not experience any early prenatal stress (EPS). The second group received the standard diet while exposed to EPS, which consisted of restraint, light, noise, and the threat of predators. The third group got a modified diet with DHA supplement but was not exposed to EPS. Group 4 received DHA and EPS supplements.
The team analyzed fetuses and placentas at 12.5 days of pregnancy and found that exposure to prenatal distress resulted in lower placental and fetal weight in males but not females. In the DHA groups, they found that the supplement reversed the effect of EPS on males.
“This study yielded two findings regarding the interaction between maternal stress and enrichment of the DHA diet in early stage fetuses,” said Beversdorf. First, stress on the mother during the first week of pregnancy appears to affect the pattern of gene expression in the placenta, and the sex of the offspring determines the magnitude of the disorder. Second, the maternal diet enriched with preformed DHA during periods of high stress showed a partial salvation of the stress dependent gene expression disorder in the placenta. “
Beversdorf said future studies will be needed to better understand the complex cellular and molecular mechanisms linking maternal diet consumption, chronic stress during pregnancy, placental gene expression and enduring health outcomes in the offspring.
In addition to Beversdorf and Jašarevic, the study authors include fellow University of Missouri Kevin Fritsch, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and physiology. David Gehry, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology; Rosio Rivera, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Animal Science.
The study, “Maternal DHA Supplementation Affects Sex-Specific Disruption of Placental Gene Expression after Early Prenatal Stress,” was recently published in the journal The biology of gender differences. The research contained in these publications was supported by grants from the University of Missouri Research Council, the F21C-Nutrition for Health Group, the F21C-Reporductive Biology Group, and the Medical College Mission Enhancement Fund. Beversdorf consulted with Quadrant Biosciences, Impel Pharma, YAMO Pharma, and Staliclca, unrelated to this work. Content is the responsibility of the authors only and does not necessarily represent the views of the funding agencies.