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Obesity in pregnant women could affect baby's brain development, study finds

The findings highlight how women’s health can affect their babies before they even give birth

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Photo (c) Brosa - Getty Images
Recent studies have emphasized how mothers’ habits can have an effect on their children, as women who follow healthy lifestyles are more likely to have kids who reap the benefits of such choices. 

Now, researchers from NYU Langone Health have found that pregnant women’s body mass indices (BMIs) could have an effect on their babies’ brain development

“Our findings affirm that a mother’s obesity may play a role in fetal brain development, which might explain some of the cognitive and metabolic health concerns seen in children born to mothers with higher BMI,” said researcher Mariah Thompson, PhD. 

Understanding brain development

To better understand the link between pregnant women’s weight and newborns’ brain development, the researchers analyzed over 100 pregnant women and their children. All of the women were between six and nine months pregnant and had BMIs that ranged between “overweight” and “obese” on the BMI scale. 

For the study, the researchers took brain scans of the babies before they were born and sought to discover what, if any, effect mothers’ weight had on development. Though the women were between their second and third trimesters during the study, the images showed nearly 200 different active nerve cells in the babies’ brains. 

Ultimately, the researchers identified two parts of the brain that were affected by a mother’s weight -- the anterior insula and prefrontal cortex. While the former deals with emotional responses, the latter can affect anything from speech to reasoning skills. The team warned that development issues in these areas of the brain could lead to conditions like autism or ADHD. 

Though the researchers were able to make this association between obesity in pregnant women and fetal brain development, they caution that these findings can’t indicate whether these effects will last long-term or what they’ll mean for newborns as they develop into children and adolescents. They plan to do more work in this area to gain a deeper understanding of how kids’ development and health could be affected by their mothers’ BMI. 

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