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New research shows that early fetal brain development is key to neurodevelopment

A study led by researchers at the University of Oxford and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health has found that fetal cranial growth trajectories tracked at 20-25 weeks gestation are associated with brain development at age two, including the development of cognitive, language and visual skills.

Researchers followed over 3,500 pregnant women in Brazil, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand, and the United Kingdom between 2012 and 2019, measuring fetal cranial growth trajectories through ultrasounds and the neurodevelopment of the child at two years old.

“We found that patterns of fetal growth during pregnancy predict growth and neurodevelopment in infants up to two years of age, and that faltering head growth [during pregnancy] has a negative effect on cognition, language and vision,” said study co-author Rober Gunier, a researcher for the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the School of Public Health.

Fetal cranial growth can be significantly affected by a variety of environmental influences, such as maternal infections, which can then have implications for the child’s long-term health, neurodevelopment, and even education or income later in life.

“I chose to work on the project to help identify populations for whom early preventive measures during pregnancy would most benefit infant development. One fairly obvious thing we identified so far is… a biomarker of maternal smoking,” Gunier said. “Long term, we hope to identify other biomarkers during pregnancy that predict head growth and identify fetuses that would benefit from targeted interventions.”

Researchers emphasize a need for preventive interventions before the 20–25 week gestational window to prevent any obstacle to optimal cranial growth. Interventions may include a focus on nutrition, supplements, or even pharmaceuticals to prevent infections. Future research will likely focus on finding other biomarkers, environmental influences, and preventive measures that will help fetal cranial growth.

Read more at the journal Nature Medicine