The study shows that a DHA supplement can offset the effects of maternal stress on unborn men

IMAGE: Senior Author David Beversdorf, MD, Professor of Radiology, Neurology, and Psychology at the University of Missouri. view More

Photo credit: Justin Kelley

Neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia disproportionately affect men and are directly related to early life grievances caused by maternal stress and other dietary factors. However, the underlying reasons for these male-specific effects are not exactly known. Researchers from the University of Missouri Medical School and the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders have uncovered possible causes of male vulnerability in the womb and learned that a special nutritional supplement for mothers called docosahexanoic acid (DHA) may protect against the effects of the problem maternal stress on unborn men during early development.

“We believe that differences in metabolic needs for male and female embryos as early as the first trimester, combined with dynamic differences in male and female placenta response to environmental factors, contribute to an increased risk of male neurodevelopmental disorders later in life.” said senior author David Beversdorf, MD, professor of radiology, neurology, and psychology at MU.

Beversdorf worked with lead researcher Eldin Jašarevic, PhD, an assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of Maryland Medical School, and a team of researchers on the study, which divided 40 mice into four different cohorts. Group 1 mothers received a standard diet and were not exposed to early prenatal stress (EPS). Group 2 received the standard diet while exposed to (EPS), which consisted of restraint, light, noise, and predatory threats. Group 3 received a diet modified with additional DHA but not exposed to EPS. Group 4 received DHA supplement and EPS.

The team analyzed the embryos and placentas at 12.5 days of gestation and found that exposure to prenatal stress reduced placenta and embryo weights in men but not women. In the DHA groups, they found that the supplement reversed the effects of EPS on men.

“This study provided two results regarding the interaction between maternal stress and dietary DHA accumulation in early-stage embryos,” said Beversdorf. “First, maternal exposure during the first week of pregnancy appeared to influence the pattern of gene expression in the placenta, and the sex of the offspring determined the extent of the disorder. Second, a preformed DHA-fortified diet for the mother during periods of high stress was shown to partially save the stress-dependent Dysregulation of gene expression in the placenta. “

Beversdorf said future studies will be needed to better understand the complex cellular and molecular mechanisms that link maternal nutritional consumption, chronic stress during pregnancy, placenta gene expression, and lasting health outcomes in offspring.

In addition to Beversdorf and Jašarevic, the authors of the study also include colleagues Kevin Fritsche from the University of Missouri, PhD, Professor of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology; David Geary, PhD, professor of psychology; and Rocio Rivera, PhD, Associate Professor of Animal Science.

The study “Maternal DHA Supplementation Influences Gender-Specific Disruption of Placenta Gene Expression Following Early Prenatal Stress” was recently published in the journal Biology of Sex Differences. The research published in these publications was supported by grants from the University of Missouri Research Committee, the F21C Group on Nutrition for Health, the F21C Group on Regenerative Biology, and the Mission Enhancement Fund of the School of Medicine. Beversdorf consulted with Quadrant Biosciences, Impel Pharma, YAMO Pharma and Staliclca, which have nothing to do with this work. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agencies.


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