A dietary supplement called docosahexanoic acid may guard against the effects of maternal stress on unborn males during early development, a new study shows.
Neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia disproportionately affect males and are directly linked to early life adversity caused by maternal stress and other factors, which nutrition might affect.
The underlying reasons for these male-specific impacts have not been well understood, but now researchers have uncovered possible reasons for male vulnerability in the womb.
“We believe differences in metabolic requirements for male and female embryos as early as the first trimester, combined with dynamic differences in the way the male and female placenta reacts to environmental factors, contributes to the increased risk for male neurodevelopmental disorders later in life,” says senior author David Beversdorf, a professor of radiology, neurology, and psychology at the University of Missouri.
Beversdorf worked with principal investigator Eldin Jašarevic, an assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a team of researchers on the study which involved grouping 40 mice into four different cohorts.
Group 1 mothers received a standard diet and were not exposed to any early prenatal stress (EPS). Group 2 got the standard diet while being exposed to EPS, which consisted of restraint, light, noise, and predator threat. Group 3 got a diet modified with supplemental docosahexanoic acid (DHA) but was not exposed to EPS. Group 4 received DHA supplementation and EPS.
The team analyzed the embryos and placentas at 12.5 days of gestation and found exposure to prenatal distress decreased placenta and embryo weight in males but not females. In the DHA groups, they found the supplement reversed the impact of EPS on males.
“This study yielded two results regarding the interaction between maternal stress and dietary DHA enrichment in early stage embryos,” Beversdorf says. “First, stress on the mother during the first week of gestation appeared to influence gene expression pattern in the placenta, and the gender of the offspring determined the magnitude of disruption.
Second, a maternal diet enriched with preformed DHA during periods of high stress showed partial rescue of stress-dependent dysregulation of gene expression in the placenta.”
Beversdorf says researchers will need to do future studies to better understand the complex cellular and molecular mechanisms linking maternal diet consumption, chronic stress during pregnancy, placental gene expression, and lasting health outcomes in offspring.
The study appears in the journal Biology of Sex Differences. Beversdorf has consulted with Quadrant Biosciences, Impel Pharma, YAMO Pharma, and Staliclca, unrelated to this work. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of the funding agencies.
Source: University of Missouri