Poor nutrition early in pregnancy can cause a lifetime of damage to an unborn baby's brain, new research suggests.
Scientists studying baboons found that reducing the food intake of pregnant females had a major impact on their offspring's brain development.
Cells did not divide as much as they should and connections between neurons were not made. The researchers compared two groups of baboon mothers at a primate centre run by the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas.
One group ate as much as they wanted during the first half of pregnancy, while the other received 30 per cent less.
Dr Laura Cox, one of the scientists involved, said: "We found dysregulation of hundreds of genes, many of which are known to be key regulators in cell growth and development, indicating that nutrition plays a major role during foetal development by regulating basic cellular machinery."
Severely inadequate nutrition, such as occurs during famines, was already known to impair foetal brain development. The new research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed even moderate dietary restriction has an impact.
Co-author Dr Thomas McDonald, from the University of Texas, said: "This study supports the view that poor diets in pregnancy can alter development of foetal organs, in this case the brain, in ways that will have lifetime effects on offspring, potentially lowering IQ and predisposing to behavioural problems."
Dr Peter Nathanielsz, of the Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Research at the University of Texas, said early pregnancy was a "critical time window" when many of the brain's neurons were born.