All parents dream of having healthy children that will be able to enjoy life in all its fullness, while being physically and mentally fit to achieve their dreams.
This dream usually becomes a reality for most people. But in some cases, unborn children may experience certain hurdles in the womb, which end up impeding their optimal development and general well-being.
For instance, pregnancy related complications such as maternal obesity, gestational diabetes, placenta infections and pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy) can lead to low oxygen levels in the womb. The condition is medically referred to as chronic foetal hypoxia.
The low oxygen levels usually interfere with the proper growth of the child and can lead to brain health problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and brain changes that have been linked to Alzheimer's disease in later life.
Health experts note that to avert these challenges, more emphasis should be put in helping mothers embrace recommended health practices and behaviours during pregnancy, so as to forestall complications that are detrimental to the well-being of the unborn child.
This entails encouraging women to embrace healthy diets and to attend all antenatal care (ANC) visits. The check-ups enable doctors to identify and tackle emerging complications early enough, before they can harm the baby.
Preliminary research conducted on mouse models also offers insights into the role that nutrition can play in the prevention of brain health problems caused by low oxygen levels in the womb.
A new study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Journal indicates that increased intake of nutrients rich in anti-oxidants may protect unborn children from brain problems caused by common pregnancy complications that reduce oxygen levels in the womb.
Antioxidants are compounds or substances that help defend body cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules known as free radicals.
One major source of antioxidants is Vitamin-C, which was found by the study to be effective in averting brain development problems caused by low oxygen in the womb.
The nutrient is found in many foods, particularly citrus fruits and vegetables. In addition, Vitamin-C is well known for being a potent antioxidant and immune booster.
Since the human body cannot produce or store vitamin-C, it is essential for people – especially pregnant women - to consume it regularly in sufficient amounts.
Those who fail to meet the recommended rations, based on their nutrition assessment results, are often given supplements to boost Vitamin-C levels in the body.
During the study, Vitamin-C supplements given to pregnant rats with low oxygen levels in the womb, was shown to protect the future brain health of the offspring.
"It's hugely exciting to think we might be able to protect the brain health of an unborn child by a simple treatment that can be given to the mother during pregnancy," said Professor Dino Giussani, the lead author of the study from the University of Cambridge's Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience.
"In medicine today there has to be a shift in focus from treatment of the disease, when we can do comparatively little, to prevention, when we can do much more. This study shows that we can use preventative medicine even before birth to protect long term brain health."
While conducting the research, a group of pregnant rats were kept in an environment with deprived air (13 percent oxygen), while the rest enjoyed normal air (21 percent oxygen).
Half of the rats in each group were given Vitamin C in their drinking water throughout the pregnancy, which was closely monitored.
After they delivered, the baby rats were raised to four months old, which is equivalent to early adulthood in humans.
Thereafter, the researchers proceeded to perform various tests aimed at assessing their brain health and function.
The results of the study showed that rats born to pregnant women with deprived oxygen took longer to perform memory tasks and could not remember things as well.
On the contrary, affected rats whose mothers had been given Vitamin-C throughout their pregnancy, performed the memory task just as well as offspring from mothers that enjoyed normal pregnancies with sufficient oxygen levels.
The study also revealed that the hippocampus part of the brain (area associated with forming memories) was less developed in rats born to mothers that suffered from low oxygen levels in the brain.
"Impairing oxygen delivery at critical periods of development of the baby's affects the number of nerve connections and cells made in the brain. This surfaces in adult life as problems with memory and an earlier cognitive [brain function] decline," said Dr Emily Camm, another author of the study from the University of Cambridge's Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience.
The researchers seek to conduct further studies to determine the ideal dose of Vitamin-C that would be ideal for use in human beings – among pregnant women with deprived oxygen in their wombs – so as to avert brain health complications in affected offspring.