• Nearly 40% women aged 20-39 in the United States are obese 
  • The rising cases of high BMI highlight the importance of understanding how maternal BMI affects the child's brain development
  • This study is first of its kind to measure changes in fetal brain activity inside the womb

Obesity in pregnant women might affect the development of the child's brain, a new study pointed out.

The experts at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, New York, found high body mass index (BMI) -- an indicator of obesity -- is associated with two brain areas namely the prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. These regions of the brain are responsible for decision making and behavior. And disruptions in these regions could be linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and overeating.

The researchers examined 197 groups of metabolically active nerve cells in the brain of developing fetuses. Using millions of computations, they divided the groups into 16 meaningful subgroups based on thousands of connections between the groups of neurons. They could only find a connection between two areas of the fetal brain that were associated with the mother's BMI.

They recruited 109 women with BMIs ranging from 25 to 47. According to the National Institutes of Health, women are considered "overweight" if they have a BMI of 25 or higher and obese if it was 30 and above. The study participants were all in their second and third trimesters of pregnancies.

Using MRI imaging, the researchers measured the fetal brain activity and map patterns of communication between brain cells in different regions. They then compared the participants to find out the differences in how groups of neurons communicate with each other based on their BMI.

"Our findings affirm that a mother's obesity may play a role in fetal brain development, which might explain some of the cognitive and metabolic health concerns seen in children born to mothers with higher BMI," MedicalXpress quoted the study’s lead author Moriah Thomason, Ph.D.

The study authors highlighted their research wasn’t intended to draw a line between the differences found and the ultimate cognitive or behavioral problems in children but only looked at fetal brain activity.

The researchers are planning to follow the study participants' kids over time to find out if the brain activity changes lead to behavioral issues, ADHD or other health risks. The findings are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Obesity rates continue to soar in the United States and it is now more important than ever to understand how the condition might impact early brain development.

Older studies that demonstrated an association between obesity and brain development had mostly focused on cognitive function in children after birth. But this study is first of its kind to measure changes in fetal brain activity inside the womb, as early as the second trimester.

The researchers opine their approach was designed to eliminate the potential influence of breastfeeding and environmental factors occurring post birth and to examine the earliest origins of the negative effects of maternal BMI on the developing child’s brain.

Representational image of a woman holding her belly before having an ultrasound examination at the Birthing Center of South Florida in Florida City, Oct. 12, 2006. Joe Raedle/Getty Images