Child’s obesity risk can start in the womb: Fetuses develop genetic changes that affect fat stores if their moms overeat during pregnancy
- University of Southampton scientists took cord blood samples from 1,500 babies
- They followed them for six years and compared their health with their mother’s pregnancy medical records
- They found fetuses experienced ‘epigenetic changes’ – modifications to their DNA – when their mothers gained more weight than recommended during pregnancy
A child’s risk of being obese may start with genetic changes in the womb caused by their mothers diet, new research shows.
Scientists found fetuses experienced ‘epigenetic changes’ – modifications to their DNA – when their mothers gained more weight than recommended during pregnancy.
Those changes, they said, cause the unborn child to develop cells types that may affect how their body stores fat for the rest of their life.
Researchers say the findings show the importance of testing fetuses, babies and young children for the tell-tale changes in order to help them manage their weight earlier rather than later.
University of Southampton scientists found fetuses experienced ‘epigenetic changes’ – modifications to their DNA – when their mothers gained more weight than recommended during pregnancy
‘Our results add to the growing evidence that epigenetic changes detectable at birth are linked to a child’s health as they grow up,’ lead author Karen Lillycrop of the University of Southampton said.
‘Additionally, it also strengthens the body of evidence that shows a mother’s health during pregnancy can affect the future health of her child. It could allow us to more accurately predict the future risk of.’
To conduct the study, Dr Lillycrop’s team took blood samples from the umbilical cords of 1,500 babies, and followed up on them periodically for the next six years, taking more blood samples.
They were looking at the SLC6A4 gene, which regulates mood and appetite. While we are all born with a set of genes, environmental factors can alter how they are expressed, which can dramatically change how our bodies work.
Last year, they found that significant that children with dimmer expression of SLC6A4 had trouble controlling their weight – leaving them 0.5 pounds heavier at the age of four.
This time the researchers wanted to find out when and how those mutations come about.
They compared the children’s blood samples with their mother’s health records during pregnancy.
Mothers who’d gained more weight during pregnancy were more likely to have children with SLC6A4 mutations – particularly if it was one of their first children. The link was not as strong for mothers who’d had multiple previous births – though it’s not clear why.
Dr Lillycrop said there is a positive: epigenetic changes aren’t fixed like genes. More and more research suggests things like diet, exercise and lowering stress can help reverse the mutations.
Co-author Professor Keith Godfrey, a member of the research team and Director of the EpiGen Global Consortium, added: ‘The new findings strengthen the case that primary prevention of childhood obesity needs to begin before birth, and might ‘reset’ appetite levels in ways that protect infants and children from putting on excessive weight.
‘Ongoing research is examining whether diet and lifestyle interventions before and during pregnancy might be able to tackle and even reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.’