Developmental origins of adult health and disease: The role of periconceptional and foetal nutrition

I. Caroline McMillen, Severence M. MacLaughlin, Beverly S. Muhlhausler, Sheridan Gentili, Jaime L. Duffield, Janna L. Morrison

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The 'developmental origins of adult health and disease' hypothesis stated that environmental factors, particularly maternal undernutrition, act in early life to programme the risks for adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and the metabolic syndrome in adult life. Early physiological tradeoffs, including activation of the foetal hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, confer an early fitness advantage such as foetal survival, while incurring delayed health costs. We review the evidence that such tradeoffs are anticipated from conception and that the periconceptional nutritional environment can programme the developmental trajectory of the stress axis and the systems that maintain and regulate arterial blood pressure. There is also evidence that restriction of placental growth and function, results in an increased dependence of the maintenance of arterial blood pressure on the sequential recruitment of the sympathetic nervous system and HPA axis. While the 'early origins of adult disease' hypothesis has focussed on the impact of maternal undernutrition, an increase in maternal nutritional intake and in maternal body mass intake has become more prevalent in developed countries. Exposure to overnutrition in foetal life results in a series of central and peripheral neuroendocrine responses that in turn programme development of the fat cell and of the central appetite regulatory system. While the physiological responses to foetal undernutrition result in the physiological trade off between foetal survival and poor health outcomes that emerge after reproductive senescence, exposure to early overnutrition results in poor health outcomes that emerge in childhood and adolescence. Thus, the effects of early overnutrition can directly impact on reproductive fitness and on the health of the next generation. In this context, the physiological responses to relative overnutrition in early life may directly contribute to an intergenerational cycle of obesity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)82-89
Number of pages8
JournalBasic and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology

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