Obesity during pregnancy may hinder fetal brain development, a new study suggests.
Development of brain areas involved in decision-making and behavior may be affected as early as the second trimester, New York University researchers said.
For the study, the researchers examined nearly 200 groups of active nerve cells in the fetal brain.
"Our findings affirm that a mother's obesity may play a role in fetal brain development, which might explain some of the cognitive and metabolic health concerns seen in children born to mothers with higher BMI [body mass index]," researcher Moriah Thomason said in a university news release. She is an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
As U.S. obesity rates soar, it's important to understand how excess weight may affect early brain development, she said.
Thomason's team recruited 109 women who were between six and nine months' pregnant. Their BMIs (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) ranged from 25 to 47. A BMI of 25-30 is overweight; over 30 is considered obese.
Researchers used MRIs to measure activity in different regions of the fetal brain.
They found correlations between the moms' higher BMI and two brain areas, the prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. Disruptions in the prefrontal cortex and anterior insula have been linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and overeating.
However, the findings cannot draw a direct line between the differences researchers found and children's thinking or behavior.
The findings were published online Aug. 11 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Learn more about obesity and pregnancy from the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.