Babies born at the extremes of the birth weight spectrum are more vulnerable to neonatal complications and lifelong health issues. Our research focuses on how pre-pregnancy nutritional status, maternal age and diet during gestation impact fetal growth and neonatal outcomes, and influence offspring health and disease risk throughout the life-course. Our research explores the underlying mechanisms with a particular focus on the placenta, and aims to produce evidence based guidance to optimize both maternal and child health in the immediate and longer term.
The importance of the fetal period in determining an individual’s later food choices is being appraised in a new project on the perinatal programming of food acceptance.
Increasing the proportion of babies born at a healthy weight is a Scottish Government National Performance Indictor which recognises that babies born at the birth weight extremes are more vulnerable to neonatal complications and lifelong health issues. Placental insufficiency commonly underlies fetal growth restriction (FGR) and is characterised by reduced uterine blood flow. Our sheep paradigm replicates this key feature of compromised pregnancies and was the model of choice to provide the proof of concept that a novel gene therapy treatment, targeting blood flow and thereby fetal nutrient supply, would increase prenatal growth velocity with no adverse effects on mother or fetus (Carr et al. 2014).
The risk of altered fetal growth is particularly high in obese, underweight and adolescent women. Accordingly links between maternal nutrition (at conception and in the inter-pregnancy period) and the growth and nutrient transfer function of the placenta have been established and shown to underlie the risk of serious pregnancy complications including pregnancy hypertensive disease, premature delivery and birth weight extremes (Wallace et al. 2012, 2016).
For livestock producers, appropriate pregnancy nutrition is central to the production of viable offspring of optimal birth weight, and impacts economically important traits such as carcass composition. Here our focus is the impact of prenatal nutrient supply on the development of fetal adipose tissue and brain-appetite pathways, and the consequences for postnatal growth, metabolism and body composition (Wallace et al. 2014a,b; 2015).
Poor nutritional habits developed in childhood track into adult life and predict chronic disease. The importance of the fetal period in determining food choice is being appraised in a new project on the perinatal programming of food acceptance. This recognises that an individual’s ability to detect taste and flavour is well developed by the final third of pregnancy. Babies are first exposed to flavour through the amniotic fluid in utero and then later through breast or formula milk. We aim to evaluate whether interventions to improve maternal dietary variety in the perinatal period will increase an infant’s flavour exposure and hence maximise acceptance of a wide range of fruit and vegetables at weaning.
John Milne - Research assistant