Brain imaging best way to understand how mom’s diet affects baby in developing countries
When pregnant women lack adequate food, their babies are affected negatively, sometimes for life. Researchers say that in developing countries, neuroimaging (a technique that captures brain structure and activities in pictures) should be used to study the effect of mothers’ diets on brain development.
1 in 8 babies born in Africa has a low birth weight. These children often experience long-lasting poor health, and intellectual difficulties because their brain development is affected.
However, scientists don’t know exactly how a mother’s diet and a low birth weight impact brain development. By looking at studies on the subject, researchers hoped to understand the relationship between mothers’ diet, low birth weight and brain development.
South African researchers, therefore, reviewed existing scientific publications to better understand the relationship between mothers’ diets, low birth weight and children’s intellectual capabilities. They specifically looked at reports on general nutrition and brain development, mothers’ diet and birth outcomes, and the use of neuroimaging in nutrition research.
The researchers reported that nutrition greatly affects the growth and maturation of the human brain within the first 1,000 days (from conception to 2 years of life). Hence, mothers’ diets impact brain development immensely.
They noted that children had better outcomes, such as proper brain development, a good birth weight and avoiding stillbirth or death, when mothers ate well during pregnancy.
While obese mothers tend to have obese children with a greater risk of respiratory difficulties and poor brain development, mothers who are underweight due to poor diets give birth to children with low birth weight. Scientists do not fully understand the relationship between mothers’ diets and low birth weight.
They reported that this relationship can be understood better through neuroimaging, in which scientists take pictures of the brain to study its development.
However, this technology is not yet common in developing countries. Neuroimaging is used to study obese mothers and low birth weight babies born prematurely in developed countries.
Since many women in developing countries lack adequate food during pregnancy, scientists could use the same technique to study how a lack of food affects the development of children’s brains.
Ultimately, African health authorities could then use insights from neuroimaging to design nutritional interventions for pregnant women who are likely to lack food.
Maternal nutrition is a key factor influencing optimal birth and child developmental outcomes. Although this is recognized globally, it is particularly relevant to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where the risk of malnutrition during pregnancy is high, and low birth weight (LBW) is prevalent. LBW has consistently been associated with poor health, stunted growth, and adverse neurocognitive outcomes. Less is known about the impact of maternal nutrition and LBW on neurodevelopment due to the limited focus of neuroimaging research on maternal obesity and pre-term birth in high-income countries. Maternal nutrition may be pivotal to understanding how LBW impacts the child brain in LMICs where there is a high risk of food insecurity and approximately 43% of children under the age of 5 are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential. Furthermore, examining the outcomes of LBW in babies who are small-for-gestational age (SGA) due to intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) in LMICs is less-explored, yet important. Therefore, further neuroimaging research is needed to investigate the complex relationship between maternal nutrition, LBW and structural brain outcomes. This should be recognized as a research priority to inform nutritional interventions during pregnancy, and to optimize the developmental potential of children from LMICs.
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