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Maternal Obesity: How Does it Affect a Developing Fetus’s Brain?


The focus of the Edlow Laboratory’s research is the effect of maternal obesity on fetal brain development and offspring behavior.  While epidemiologic studies have shown that maternal obesity is associated with an increased risk for developmental delay, autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression in children, there is a gap in understanding the underlying basis for the association. The team is especially interested in how the sex of the child modifies the effect of maternal obesity on fetal brain development, which is critical to designing effective and targeted interventions.

The Edlow laboratory was one of the first to use amniotic fluid supernatant and umbilical cord blood samples to investigate real-time fetal brain development in pregnancies of obese women.  Previously, profiling of these two biofluids identified abnormal gene expression signatures in fetuses of obese women, highlighting dysregulated brain development, increased inflammation, and increased oxidative stress (Edlow AG et al. PLOS One, 2014; Edlow AG et al. British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2016).  

To facilitate direct examination of the fetal brain, the laboratory began using a mouse model of maternal diet-induced obesity, and examined both male and female embryonic brains.  They are also performing neurobehavioral testing on both male and female offspring. Their preliminary data from this model suggest that maternal obesity is associated with sex specific differences in embryo size, biochemical markers of brain oxidative stress, and specific and global embryonic brain gene expression (Edlow AG et al. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2016).  They also found profound effects of maternal diet in pregnancy on fetal brain gene expression.  

Ongoing research focuses on immunohistochemical staining of embryonic brains, and neurobehavioral tests of offspring to see if differences in fetal brain development also result in functional neurobehavioral deficits. In addition, the Edlow Laboratory plans to more fully explore the sex differences they have identified, with the goal of gaining a better understanding of the underlying biology.