Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Importance of Nutrition During Pregnancy for Brain Development

The Lifelong Importance of Nutrition in Pregnancy for Brain Development
Susanne D. Rooij

How drastic is the effect of nutrition during pregnancy on infant brain development? -JR

The importance of a healthy diet for proper functioning of the brain is increasingly being recognized. Week in, week out studies appear recommending a high intake of certain foods in order to achieve optimal brain function and prevent brain diseases. Although it is definitely no punishment for the most of us to increase our chocolate consumption to boost brain function, the most important period during which nutrition affects our brain may already be behind us.

Nutrition affects the brain throughout life, but it is potentially most important during the critical prenatal period, during which the lion’s share of our brain development takes place. During the time we spend in the womb, our brains undergo dramatic changes. The fetal nervous system from which the brain and spinal cord progress is one of the first systems to develop. Its foundations are laid down during the very first days of pregnancy. At the end of pregnancy, the brain has grown exponentially and is capable of learning and forming memories. It is actually not very hard to imagine that to lay a good foundation for the brain it is of utmost importance to receive the best building blocks through proper nutrition of the mother.

A very dramatic illustration of the consequences of not receiving adequate nutrition was shown in a study from the seventies in which Zena Stein and colleagues investigated the effects of prenatal exposure to the Dutch famine on the development of babies. The Dutch ‘Hungerwinter’ was a period of severe famine that struck the Western part of the Netherlands at the end of World War II. There was so little food available that even pregnant women suffered from severe undernutrition. Stein and her colleagues found that babies that had been exposed to the famine during the first trimester of pregnancy had increased rates of birth defects of the central nervous system.

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