Researchers find potential intergenerational impacts of maternal lifestyle on fetal growth

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New research suggests that maternal physical activity and nutrition before and during pregnancy may impact placental methylation and fetal growth.

The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and eBiomedicinewas led by Zhang Cuilin, MD, PhD, MPH, director of the Global Center for Asian Women’s Health, and professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore (NUS Medicine). In collaboration with a team of investigators from the National Institutes of Health, USA, Cuilin has been studying longitudinal physical activity and nutrition before and after pregnancy as well as placental DNA and fetal growth through a series of experiments.

“We hope to better understand both short-term and long-term health implications of diet and lifestyle on maternal and fetal health, as well as their underlying mechanisms,” said Cuilin in a statement. “We aim to identify effective diet and lifestyle intervention strategies to promote the health and wellbeing of women, their children, and the entire family.”

In Cuilin’s most recent study, researchers found that maternal physical activity had intergenerational effects on offspring DNA methylation, responsible for the regulation of gene expression and cellular function in the placenta, according to the authors. The study showed that physical activity levels impacted the DNA Methylation region where gene expression is regulated. According to researchers, these findings suggest that early-life cardiac, immune system, and nervous system development may be impacted by maternal physical activity during and before pregnancy.

In a separate investigation, Cuilin’s team examined how different types and levels of fatty acids consumed by a mother in early pregnancy affected fetal growth. Researchers found that most plasma phospholipid poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) consumed during pregnancy could enhance fetal growth throughout a pregnancy.

Findings from our longitudinal study not only provided novel insights into the differential roles of blood PUFAs in fetal development throughout pregnancy, but also determined how soon such effects kicked in and whether the effects lasted through pregnancy,” said Queenie Ling Jun, PhD, assistant professor at Yong Loo School of Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “By identifying some PUFAs that can be supplemented through diet, such as DHA [docosahexaenoic acid], we might offer a potential target using PUFAs in early pregnancy to optimize fetal growth.”