Placenta ‘crosstalk’ benefits brains of mom and fetus

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There’s a functional link between the placenta and the brains of both mother and fetus, a new study with mice genes shows.

The link allows each to adapt to changing conditions in the other and improve the chance of a successful pregnancy, researchers report.  In addition to providing a better understanding of pregnancy in women, researchers also say the results of the study could help in fighting the opioid crisis.

The placenta is a vital part of a successful pregnancy, providing oxygen and nutrients to a growing fetus while also getting rid of waste products. Scientists have long thought this temporary organ influences the brains of both the mother and the fetus, but until now, no clear evidence of the purpose of that connection existed.

“The placenta is a fleeting presence in an organism’s life, but we know it plays a huge role in development,” says Susanta Behura, an assistant research professor of animal sciences in the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

“We wanted to know how and why the placenta communicates with the brain, and we found a whole network of crosstalk happening between the placenta and the brains of the mother and fetus that changes how genes are expressed in all three.”

Behura and his colleagues first examined gene expression in pregnant mice on day 15 of gestation (mice pregnancies typically last about 20 days). Researchers mapped patterns of gene expression among the fetal brain, the mother’s brain, and the placenta, indicating “crosstalk” among the three organs that suggests coordinated, functional interactions.

Next, in order to test whether changes in the environment of the uterus would also impact the placenta, researchers altered Foxa2, a gene also present in humans that plays a role in the regulation of the liver. Not only did these mice display changes in gene expression of the placenta, but the altered uterus also changed the expression of genes in the fetal brain.

“Evidence of the crosstalk gives us valuable information about the role the placenta plays in developing and protecting a fetus,” Behura says. “We saw changes in the olfactory bulbs of pregnant mice in response to changes in the placenta, which could play a role in helping the mothers perform maternal functions like pup retrieval and nest-building.

“In other words, the placenta could actually help the mother’s brain adapt to changing conditions during pregnancy to maintain a harmonious environment.”

The findings could have far-reaching applications that go beyond the study of pregnancy in women, Behura says. Since opioids put pressure on the uterus and affect the fetal brain during gestation, the links identified in this study could help researchers address the impacts of the opioid crisis in North America.

The study appears in the FASEB Journal. Grants from the University of Missouri and the National Institutes of Health funded the work.

Source: University of Missouri