Could poor nutrition and, specifically, a lack of vitamin C in pregnant women be causing permanent damage to the brains of unborn babies? University of Copenhagen scientists have just published some disturbing research conclusions in the scientific journal PLOS ONE suggesting that could be the case.
The research team, led by Professor Jens Lykkesfeldt, noted that a lack of vitamin C isn't unusual, either. In fact, population studies reveal between 10 and 20 percent of all adults in the developed world suffer from vitamin C deficiency. "Even marginal vitamin C deficiency in the mother stunts the fetal hippocampus, the important memory center, by 10 to 15 percent, preventing the brain from optimal development," Lykkesfeldt said in a statement to the media.
"We used to think that the mother could protect the baby. Ordinarily there is a selective transport from mother to fetus of the substances the baby needs during pregnancy. However, it now appears that the transport is not sufficient in the case of vitamin C deficiency. Therefore, it is extremely important to draw attention to this problem, which potentially can have serious consequences for the children affected."
Lykkesfeldt and his colleagues reached their conclusions by studying pregnant guinea pigs and their pups because -- like humans -- guinea pigs cannot produce vitamin C themselves. When guinea pigs from vitamin C deficient mothers were born, the researchers divided the newborn animals into two groups. One group was given vitamin C supplements but, when the pups were two months old (a point in their lifespan which corresponds to the teenage years in humans) there was no improvement in their brain damage.
The scientists are now studying how early in pregnancy vitamin C deficiency influences the development of fetuses. So far, additional guinea pig experiments indicate the negative impact of a lack of vitamin C early in the pregnancy. While their studies involve animals, the scientists believe their findings have an important bearing on the human population and should sharpen the focus on a mother's lifestyle and nutritional status during pregnancy.
"People with low economic status who eat poorly - and perhaps also smoke - often suffer from vitamin C deficiency. Comparatively speaking, their children risk being born with a poorly developed memory potential. These children may encounter learning problems, and seen in a societal context, history repeats itself because these children find it more difficult to escape the environment into which they are born," Lykkesfeldt said.
His recommendation? Pregnant women should not smoke, eat a varied nutritional diet and take a multi-vitamin tablet containing vitamin C. "Because it takes so little to avoid vitamin C deficiency, it is my hope that both politicians and the authorities will become aware that this can be a potential problem," Lykkesfeldt concluded.
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