Why It's Important to Stay Healthy While Pregnant

Be very careful when you're pregnant not to get an infection.  A new study has found that moms-to-be who do are more likely to have the infection impair their fetuses' neurological functions, resulting in autism or schizophrenia.

According to newswise.com, Johns Hopkins researchers report that fetal mice — especially males — show signs of brain damage that lasts into their adulthood when they are exposed in the womb to a maternal immune system kicked into high gear by a serious infection or other malady. The findings suggest that some neurologic diseases in humans could be similarly rooted in prenatal exposure to inflammatory immune responses.

"The investigators say that the part of the brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation (the hippocampus) was smaller over the long term in the male offspring exposed to the overactive immune system in the womb," the Web site notes. The males also had fewer nerve cells in their brains and their brains contained a type of immune cell that shouldn’t be present there.

“Our research suggests that in mice, males may be more vulnerable to the effects of maternal inflammation than females, and the impact may be life long,” newswise quotes study leader Irina Burd, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of gynecology/obstetrics and neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Integrated Research Center for Fetal Medicine. “Now we wonder if this could explain why more males have diseases such as autism and schizophrenia, which appear to have neurobiological causes.”

Researchers injected a toxic solution into the wombs of pregnant mice to induce inflammation, the same thing an infection does.  When the babies were born, they showed poor motor skills and behaviorial problems, such as hyperactivity.  Two months later, some symptoms had resolved but the mice were still hyperactive. 

Chronic inflammation, Burd says at newswise.com, may play a role in keeping the hippocampus small, potentially because it inhibits proper brain development. But why males and females respond differently to the same insult in utero remains a question.

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