Professor Rosalind John, Head of the Biomedicine Division at Cardiff School of Biosciences, is leading research to understand how maternal care is programmed and how poor quality maternal care can have devastating consequences for offspring
Along with colleagues in Medicine (Anthony Isles) and Psychology (Mark Good), she has won two significant funding grants from the BBSRC for her research.
The first BBSRC-funded research project is focused on ensuring quality maternal care in an adverse environment.
Maternal care is vitally important for the survival of newborns, and a lack of, or poor quality maternal care can adversely affect behavioural and metabolic outcomes later in life. Importantly, prenatal factors, such as poor diet or stress, influence the quality of maternal care.
There is new evidence that the placenta plays a role in instructing the mother to care for her newborns, and Professor John’s studies suggest placental dysfunction induced by poor maternal diet could contribute to suboptimal maternal care. This new study will use a variety of existing experimental models and techniques to test this hypothesis.
Professor John explained the potential significance of this work.
“This work is important not just in helping us to fundamentally understand how maternal care is induced but also how this process may be influenced by the maternal environment, and how we might be able to restore maternal care – work that will have wide relevance to the welfare of animals as well as to human health.”
The second of these research projects will attempt to expose the link between placental endocrine dysfunction and offspring behavioural outcomes.
There is a well-defined association between early life adversity and significantly poorer outcomes for children. Exposure of the developing fetus to poor diet, and/or exposure of very young children to suboptimal maternal care has life-long consequences including an increased occurrence of ADHD, depression and schizophrenia. Maternal mood disorders during pregnancy and in the immediate postnatal period are also linked to poor diet in pregnancy.
Professor John’s research team have identified a novel role for the placental endocrine dysfunction in programming behavioural changes in both mothers and their offspring, and their preliminary data suggests that placental endocrine dysfunction can occur in response to poor maternal diet, and is underpinned by an epigenetic process. This new study will combine the team’s genetic model with a dietary model to examine this relationship in greater detail.
“This work is exceptionally timely as we are leading the studies on placental endocrine dysfunction using this model.” explained Professor John.
“Moreover, we can maximise the impact of our experimental studies by translating directly to human pregnancy via our MRC-funded Grown in Wales study. Consequently, our remarkable findings could rapidly lead to better outcomes for human mothers and their children.”