Obesity in pregnancy can alter the brain wiring of babies and leave them prone to long-term disorders such as diabetes and uncontrolled weight gain, a study suggests.
Scientists made the discovery after investigating why children whose mothers are obese are at greater risk of metabolic problems as they age.
The research showed that newborn mice nourished by the milk of mothers on a high-fat diet developed abnormal nerve circuits in a key metabolism-regulating brain region.
Taking differences in species into account, the findings imply that a human mother's nutrition in the last three months of pregnancy is critical to her child's future health.
"Our study suggests that expecting mothers can have major impact on the long-term metabolic health of their children by properly controlling nutrition during this critical developmental period of the offspring," US researcher Professor Tamas Horvath, from Yale School of Medicine, said.
"Mothers can control or even reverse their offspring's predisposition to obesity and resulting diseases by altering their food intake." More than a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese and at risk from long-term health problems such as Type 2 diabetes.
Studies have confirmed that children of mothers who are obese or have diabetes are vulnerable to metabolic disorders, but it has not been clear why.
The researchers in Germany found that mouse mothers fed a high-fat diet during lactation had offspring with altered nerve connections in the brain.
Abnormal signalling via the hormone insulin was also seen in the infant mice. In humans, similar effects would be expected in the last three months of pregnancy. This is because neural circuits in the hypothalamus continue to develop after birth in mice but in humans are fully formed in the womb. The research is published in the journal 'Cell'.