Food and Behaviour Research

Donate Log In

How Food Affects Your Brain: The Role of Nutrition and Diet in the Mental Health Crisis - BOOK HERE

Study shows DHA supplement may offset impact of maternal stress on unborn males

University of Missouri

omega-3 by erenor via Pexels.jpg

According to a new study, a maternal diet enriched with preformed DHA during periods of high stress showed partial rescue of stress-dependent dysregulation of gene expression in the placenta.


Many neurodevelopmental disorders - including ADHD, Autism and Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders - are significantly more common in males than females.

A biological basis for some of these sex differences has also been shown, as males appear more vulnerable than females to disturbances of early brain development in response to many environmental stressors, including maternal stress, and malnutrition during pregnancy.  

Here, researchers investigated whether supplementation during pregnancy with omega-3 DHA might protect against the negative effects of maternal stress on brain development, with a specific focus on possible sex differences.

Results confirmed that male offspring were more vulnerable than females to prenatal stress, in terms of reduced placental and embryo weight.

They also showed that maternal DHA supplementation protected against these negative effects, and the associated changes in the regulation of genes known to be important in regulating brain and body growth and development.

These findings add to the now substantial evidence that maternal diets lacking in long-chain omega-3 can have adverse effects on brain development, that males are more vulnerable than females to maternal stress during pregnancy, and that supplementation with DHA can help to protect against these negative effects. 

For details of this research, please see:

For further information on this topic please see:

See also:
24/03/21 - Medical Xpress

Neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia disproportionately affect males and are directly linked to early life adversity caused by maternal stress and other factors, which might be impacted by nutrition. But the underlying reasons for these male-specific impacts are not well understood.

Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine and the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders have uncovered possible reasons for male vulnerability in the womb, and they've learned a specific maternal dietary supplement called docosahexanoic acid (DHA) may guard against the impact of maternal stress on unborn males during early development.

"We believe differences in metabolic requirements for male and female embryos as early as the first trimester, combined with dynamic differences in the way the male and female placenta reacts to environmental factors, contributes to the increased risk for male neurodevelopmental disorders later in life," said senior author David Beversdorf, MD, a professor of radiology, neurology and psychology at MU.

Beversdorf worked with principal investigator Eldin Jašarevic, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a team of researchers on the study which involved grouping 40 mice into four different cohorts.

Group 1 mothers received a
standard diet and were not exposed to any early prenatal stress (EPS).
Group 2 got the standard diet while being exposed to (EPS), which consisted of restraint, light, noise and predator threat.
Group 3 got a diet modified with supplemental DHA but was not exposed to EPS.
Group 4 received DHA supplementation and EPS.

The team analyzed the embryos and placentas at 12.5 days of gestation and found exposure to prenatal distress decreased placenta and embryo weight in males but not females. In the DHA groups, they found the supplement reversed the impact of EPS on males.

"This study yielded two results regarding the interaction between maternal stress and dietary DHA enrichment in early stage embryos," Beversdorf said.

"First, stress on the mother during the first week of gestation appeared to influence gene expression pattern in the placenta, and the gender of the offspring determined the magnitude of disruption.

"Second, a maternal diet enriched with preformed DHA during periods of high stress showed partial rescue of stress-dependent dysregulation of gene expression in the placenta."

Beversdorf said future studies will be needed to better understand the complex cellular and molecular mechanisms linking maternal diet consumption, chronic stress during pregnancy, placental gene expression and lasting health outcomes in offspring.