The National Institutes of Health has awarded $3.1 million to a scientist at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI) and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) to study how maternal obesity during pregnancy influences infant brain development.
Dr. Xiawei Ou, a researcher at ACRI and an associate professor of radiology and pediatrics at UAMS College of Medicine, will lead the five-year study, which he hopes will lay the foundation for discovering strategies to promote brain development in children born to obese mothers. Dr. Ou is also the director of the Brain Imaging Lab at Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center (ACNC).
“Obesity during pregnancy has become a prevalent health concern in the U.S., not only for the pregnant women, but also for their offspring,” Ou said. “The more we understand about precisely how maternal obesity modifies a baby’s brain, the more we can do to change that process.”
Ou’s research team believes maternal obesity during pregnancy exposes a baby to an inflammatory environment that changes brain structure and development. They will be looking specifically at which brain structures and functions are impacted, how long those effects last, and the underlying processes that lead to these changes.
The study will recruit pregnant mothers in their first trimester who are either normal-weight or obese and study their newborns’ brains using advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) and ACNC. The ACNC is a national Human Nutrition Research Center established as a partnership between ACH, UAMS and the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS).
MRIs will be repeated at age 1 and 2 years and more neurodevelopmental testing will occur at age 2 to see if the brain changes last into toddlerhood. Researchers will also measure inflammatory markers in the mothers and obtain cord blood samples at birth to see if there are any associations between obesity-associated inflammation during pregnancy and baby’s brain development.
Ou is an inaugural project leader in the ACRI Center for Translational Pediatric Research, which provided infrastructure and guidance to propel the study.