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The Impact of Maternal Health on Foetal Development

Thursday 7 April 2016 4:35pm

Christine Jasoni, along with being the deputy director of the Brain Health Research Centre, is an expert in the field of Developmental Neuroscience. This aspect of neuroscience focuses on how our brains develop throughout gestation, and how we are able to transform from a small cluster of cells into thinking, feeling individuals.

Most people are aware that alcohol consumed during pregnancy can cause foetal alcohol syndrome, or that thalidomide prescribed for morning sickness resulted in thousands of children born with physical abnormalities. But according to Dr Jasoni we can’t simply focus on the chemicals we ingest, we also have to be aware of the ones we produce ourselves.

Her main focus is the impact of maternal obesity and diabetes on unborn babies. Research shows that these babies are at a much higher risk, not only of becoming obese themselves, but also of developing mental illnesses such as autism, anxiety and ADHD. This isn’t a 1:1 correlation, though, as not every child born to an obese mother will develop these problems. This is where Dr Jasoni’s research comes in.

At the moment her lab uses animal models to try to replicate exactly what it is that makes these illnesses more likely in individuals with obese mothers. The technology is advanced enough now that she can pinpoint which effects are environmental and which are purely genetic by changing one and keeping the other constant. She could, for example, have two mice with identical DNA but feed them different diets and observe the effect of those differences in their offspring.

Nothing is cut and dried when you work in the area of science where nature meets nurture, but Dr Jasoni has a clear view toward the future. “Early intervention,” she tells the audience, “is key for these children.” She mentions the impact of maternal stress on development, and notes that children whose mothers were under extreme stress during pregnancy have a very high risk of anxiety. This risk, however, can be almost entirely avoided with early intervention. When these children are identified and taught strategies to deal with their stress their risk of developing anxiety drops dramatically. This is what she would like to see happen for children of obese mothers. “We know that it works,” she told the audience, “the more we can help these kids early on, the fewer problems they’ll have in the long run.”

Increasing awareness and minimising harm are the key points she comes back to throughout the interview. Her focus is on helping the children and parents who may need it. She works with members of the community, support groups and paediatricians, to ensure that people have the information they need.

In five years’ time she hopes that we’ll all have a much better understanding of how genetics impact the development of the brain. For now, however, she will continue her work and do her best to ensure that the next generation have the best start possible.

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