A German study has found that a pregnant woman’s reaction to sugar influences the brain activity of her unborn baby − which means that the risk of developing obesity or diabetes could be “pre-programmed” in the womb.
The research, published in Diabetologia, involved 13 healthy pregnant women who were given a dose of sugar to test their glucose tolerance.
The women were then divided into two groups − those who were insulin-resistant and those who were insulin-sensitive. The brain response of the foetus was then examined with the help of a magnetoencephalographic device test.
“High insulin levels in the mother may correspond to high insulin levels in the foetus”
It was found that after an hour, the foetuses of the women who were less sensitive to insulin reacted more slowly to the test than the foetuses of the more insulin-sensitive women.
The researchers said the findings appear to confirm a hypothesis made in 1967 by scientist Jørgen Pedersen − namely that the foetus’s brain response to a dose of sugar given orally to its mother is linked to the mother’s insulin sensitivity.
They wrote: “It is possible that insulin-resistant mothers have higher glucose levels accompanied by increased insulin levels after a meal.
“As glucose passes the placenta, these increased glucose levels induce excess insulin (hyperinsulinaemeia) in the foetus. Therefore, high insulin levels in the mother may correspond to high insulin levels in the foetus.”
“It is possible that high insulin levels are a prerequisite for appropriate brain maturation. However, chronic hyperinsulinaemia, which is present in insulin-resistant mothers and corresponds to high insulin levels in the foetus, might induce insulin resistance in the foetal brain.
“Lower maternal insulin sensitivity is associated with slower foetal brain responses. These findings provide the first evidence of a direct effect of maternal metabolism on foetal brain activity and suggest that central insulin resistance may be programmed during foetal development.”
It is already well-known that diabetes or obesity in the mother has an effect on foetal development the baby’s development after birth, and increases risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity in adulthood.
The study was led by Dr Hubert Preissl and Dr Andreas Fritsche from the University of Tübingen and the German Centre for Diabetes Research in Neuherberg.
- Read the full study paper in Diabetologia