• Français

Centre de recherche
Tuesday, January 24 2017
Press release

In utero conditions can affect a teen's brain development

Factors such as placement in the womb and access to nutrition impact cortical structure

MONTRÉAL, January 24, 2017 – A new study shows that what happens to a fetus in the womb can affect the brain later in life. 

In a paper recently published in Human Brain Mapping, a team of researchers from the Quebec-based Research Unit on Children’s Psychosocial Maladjustment shows how the in utero environment can play a role in the development of brain processes.

For the study, Linda Booij, associate professor of psychology in Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science and a researcher at CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center, worked with researchers* from various institutions in the province of Quebec.

The team followed pairs of genetically identical twins from birth into their teenage years. They measured the twins’ weight at birth to assess whether different environmental factors had affected them while in the womb.

What they found is that the in utero environment was linked to the development of the cortex, a part of the brain that has many functions including regulating emotions and is involved in various cognitive abilities.

Size matters

Because twins share a prenatal environment, the fetuses have many environmental characteristics in common, like gestational age and the mother’s lifestyle. However, when they’re born, they can still differ in birth weight.

“Since the twins in our study are genetically identical, this difference in birth weight must be due to specific factors acting in utero,” Booij explains.

“For instance, one fetus might have a better placement in the womb or better access to nutrition.”

Previous research has shown that birth weight is a predictor of the way the brain develops. In the present study, Booij and her colleagues found that within genetically identical twin pairs, variations in birth weight were related to differences in the structure of the cortex, an association that cannot be explained by the genetic code in this case.

Brain structures

The researchers followed the twin pairs through to adolescence, conducting brain imaging to study the structure of the cortex in a subgroup of 52 pairs. They also collected DNA to study epigenetics — changes in the activity of how a gene is expressed through environmental experiences, rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.

“By the time our participants had reached teenagehood, differences in brain volume were present in the cortex, which is where much of our regulation of emotions and cognitive processes takes place,” says Booij.

“Interestingly, twins with large differences in birth weight and cortical structure also had epigenetic differences. This means that what happens in utero may affect a person’s brain development by the time they reach their teen years, and that epigenetic processes may play a role in this relationship.”

Booij and her colleagues hope that this study will shed more light on the specific role of early environmental influences on brain development, gene expression and emotional regulation.

“Our results will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of possible ways to foster optimal early brain development and prevent emotional and cognitive problems in youth.”

* Kevin F. Casey, Melissa L. Levesque, Moshe Szyf, Elmira Ismaylova, Marie-Pier Verner, Matthew Suderman, Frank Vitaro, Mara Brendgen, Ginette Dionne, Michel Boivin, Richard E. Tremblay

– 30 –

For information

Source:

Concordia University

Media contact:

Cléa Desjardins
Senior advisor, media relations
University Communications Services
Concordia University
514 848-2424, poste 5068 | clea.desjardins@concordia.ca | @CleaDesjardins
concordia.ca

 

Persons mentioned in the text
Notes

Partners in research

This study was made possible by CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé, the Canada Research Chair Program, the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the National Health Research Development Program, Université Laval and Université de Montréal. 

About this page
Updated on 1/25/2017
Created on 1/25/2017
Alert or send a suggestion

Every dollar counts!

Thank you for your generosity.

It's people like you that allow us to accelerate research and heal more children better every year and, as such, offer among the best healthcare in the world.

It's also possible to give by mail or by calling toll-free

1-888-235-DONS (3667)

Contact Us

514 345-4931

Légal

© 2006-2014 CHU Sainte-Justine.
All rights reserved.
Terms of Use, Confidentiality, Security

Avertissement

Les informations contenues dans le site « CHU Sainte-Justine » ne doivent pas être utilisées comme un substitut aux conseils d’un médecin dûment qualifié et autorisé ou d’un autre professionnel de la santé. Les informations fournies ici le sont à des fins exclusivement éducatives et informatives.

Consultez votre médecin si vous croyez être malade ou composez le 911 pour toute urgence médicale.

CHU Sainte-Justine