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Fetal oxygen-memory link explored by Caius Fellow

  • 21 April 2021

Anti-oxidant supplements during pregnancy may protect against the link between low oxygen in the womb and impaired memory function in adult offspring, a study using laboratory rats and led by Caius Fellow Professor Dino Giussani shows.

Low oxygen in the womb - known as chronic fetal hypoxia - is one of the most common complications in human pregnancy. It can be diagnosed when a routine ultrasound scan shows that the baby is not growing properly and is caused by a number of conditions including pre-eclampsia, infection of the placenta, gestational diabetes or maternal obesity.

The new results show that chronic fetal hypoxia leads to a reduced density of blood vessels, and a reduced number of nerve cells and their connections in parts of the offspring’s brain. When the offspring reaches adulthood, its ability to form lasting memories is reduced and there is evidence of accelerated brain ageing.

Vitamin C, a natural anti-oxidant, given to pregnant rats with chronic fetal hypoxia was shown to protect the future brain health of the offspring. The results are published today in the journal FASEB J (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology).

“It’s hugely exciting to think we might be able to protect the brain function of an unborn child by a simple treatment that can be given to the mother during complicated pregnancy,” said Professor Giussani from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, who led the study.

Brain health problems that may start in the womb due to adverse pregnancy conditions range from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, to brain changes in later life that have been linked with Alzheimer’s disease.

“In medicine today there has to be a greater shift in focus from treatment of the disease, when we can do comparatively little, to prevention, when we can do much more,” said Professor Giussani.

“This study shows that we can use preventative medicine even before birth to protect long term brain health.”

The researchers used Vitamin C because it is a well-established anti-oxidant supplement. However, only high doses were effective, which could cause adverse side-effects in humans. Follow-up studies are now searching for alternative anti-oxidants to treat chronic fetal hypoxia in humans.

The research was funded by The British Heart Foundation and The Medical Research Council, and the programme of work was approved by the University of Cambridge Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Board.

Reference

Camm et al: ‘Maternal antioxidant treatment protects adult offspring against memory loss and hippocampal atrophy in a rodent model of developmental hypoxia.’ The FASEB Journal, April 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1096/fj.202002557RR

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