OHSU research demonstrates possible health risks for children born to overeating mothers

September 13, 2006

PORTLAND, Ore. -- According to the latest research from the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC), overeating during pregnancy may have significant and numerous health impacts on an unborn child. The research was led by Kevin Grove, Ph.D., a scientist in ONPRC's Division of Neuroscience. Grove just returned from Australia where he presented his lab's latest research results at the prestigious 10th International Congress on Obesity.

The research demonstrated that the offspring of mothers who overeat are at risk for liver and pancreas damage. Both of which can contribute to early-onset obesity and diabetes. In addition, significant brain changes can occur in the offspring of some mothers who overeat. These changes take place in the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that controls weight regulation. The data suggest that children born to mothers who eat a high-fat diet may be predisposed to weight problems.

"There has been much scientific debate about the impacts of maternal diet versus environment when it comes to childhood obesity," explained Grove. "In conducting human observational studies, it has been difficult to determine whether the health problems of overweight children are linked to their mother's diet during pregnancy, the consumption of a high-fat diet after birth, or both. This study helps answer the first part of the question by demonstrating the negative impacts of a high-fat diet during pregnancy in a very good model for human obesity: the Japanese macaque."

Specifically, in studying pregnant female monkeys who ate a high fat-diet, the research team noted liver damage in 100 percent of the offspring. Pancreas damage and changes to the hypothalamus occurred in some, but not all of the offspring. The researchers also noted that, like humans, some pregnant monkeys were more susceptible to a high-fat diet than others. While some animals would quickly gain weight in response to the high-fat diet, other monkeys would not. Interestingly, pancreas damage and changes in the hypothalamus were more likely to occur in the offspring of animals that were more sensitive to the high-fat diet, but the liver damage was evident in all offspring.

"Clearly we have much more to learn, but the data strongly confirms the importance of a well-balanced diet for pregnant women," explained Grove. " Our future studies will attempt to determine whether these programming problems can be prevented through immediate diet change during pregnancy and when that change needs to occur."
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The ONPRC is a registered research institution, inspected regularly by the United States Department of Agriculture. It operates in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and has an assurance of regulatory compliance on file with the National Institutes of Health. The ONPRC also participates in the voluntary accreditation program overseen by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC).

Oregon Health & Science University

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