WOMEN'S HEALTH
March 3, 2020

Inflammation and the Unborn

The chronic inflammation associated with diabetes, obesity and hypertension is worrisome when a woman is pregnant. It can lead to learning disabilities in her child.

Every woman wants her pregnancy to go well. But things are more complicated for women with diabetes, hypertension, depression or anxiety and those who are overweight or obese. All are prone to the chronic, low-grade inflammation that often accompanies these conditions. When a woman is pregnant, this inflammation doesn't just affect a mother-to-be's health; it can affect her unborn child and lead to learning delays and mental health problems, a Finnish study finds.

It may be possible to avoid these neurodevelopmental delays. “Our findings suggest a potential therapeutic strategy to reduce prenatal exposure to inflammation and improve childhood neurodevelopment outcomes,” said Polina Girchenko, the first author of the study, in a statement.

Being exposed before birth to maternal metabolic conditions like diabetes or obesity, or mental health issues, was associated with twice the risk of childhood neurodevelopmental delays

First, the team looked at data on over 400 pregnant women in Southern and Eastern Finland. Then they collected information on the women's children who were between the ages of 7 and 11 years old.

The mothers' data came from a study designed to predict and prevent preeclampsia during pregnancy, which meant that there was a large prevalence of risk factors, including obesity, gestational diabetes and hypertension. The team looked at two maternal inflammatory biomarkers taken at three different times in the pregnancy. Diagnoses of maternal depression and anxiety came from Finland's national health registry.

Reports on the children of women struggling with depression were based on medical records from Finland's national medical registry. Mothers' reports of delays in cognitive, motor and social development were used to determine kids' mental health and development.

Being exposed to at least one of the maternal metabolic conditions like diabetes or obesity, or mental health issues like depression or anxiety, before birth was associated with twice the risk of childhood neurodevelopmental delays. These delays were linked to persistently high levels of two biomarkers of inflammation before and after birth.

The two biomarkers combined predicted childhood neurodevelopmental delay more precisely than one alone.

“This study highlights that some potentially modifiable prenatal factors may increase the negative impact of adverse environments upon brain and behavior during childhood,” said John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, in which the study was published, in a statement.

It may be possible to help babies after birth, perhaps by treating infants and their mothers with dietary supplements that reduce inflammation, Girchenko, an epidemiologist and postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology and Logopedics at University of Helsinki, Finland, added. Further studies testing the effectiveness of different interventions to reduce inflammation will need to be done.
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