Norr ME, Hect JL, Lenniger CJ, Van den Heuvel M, Thomason ME. An examination of maternal prenatal BMI and human fetal brain development. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2021 April ; 62(4): 458–469. doi:10.1111/jcpp.13301
Prenatal development is a time when the brain is acutely vulnerable to insult and alteration by environmental factors (e.g., toxins, maternal health). One important risk factor is maternal obesity (Body Mass Index > 30). Recent research indicates that high maternal BMI during pregnancy is associated with increased risk for numerous physical health, cognitive, and mental health problems in offspring across the lifespan. It is possible that heightened maternal prenatal BMI influences the developing brain even before birth.
The present study examines this possibility at the level of macrocircuitry in the human fetal brain. Using a data-driven strategy for parcellating the brain into subnetworks, we test whether MRI functional connectivity within or between fetal neural subnetworks varies with maternal prenatal BMI in 109 fetuses between the ages of 26 and 39weeks.
We discovered that strength of connectivity between two subnetworks, left anterior insula/inferior frontal gyrus (aIN/IFG) and bilateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), varied with maternal BMI. At the level of individual aIN/IFG-PFC connections, we observed both increased and decreased between-network connectivity with a tendency for increased within-hemisphere connectivity and reduced cross-hemisphere connectivity in higher BMI pregnancies. Maternal BMI was not associated with global differences in network topography based on network-based statistical analyses.
Overall effects were localized in regions that will later support behavioral regulation and integrative processes, regions commonly associated with obesity-related deficits. By establishing onset in neural differences prior to birth, this study supports a model in which maternal BMI-related risk is associated with fetal connectome-level brain organization with implications for offspring long-term cognitive development and mental health.