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Malaria In Pregnancy Linked To Neurocognitive Defects In Offspring

First Posted: Sep 25, 2015 11:11 PM EDT

Half of pregnant women around the globe are at risk for malaria. However, there is little research on the potential neurodevelopmental issues regarding children exposed to malaria during pregnancy. The findings are published in PLOS Pathogens.

In this recent study, researchers discovered a causal link between pre-natal exposure to malaria and subsequent neurocognitive impairment in offspring via a mouse model of experimental malaria in pregnancy. The researchers specifically examined neurocognitive function in mice of normal birth weight that had been exposed to (but not infected) with malaria in the uterus (both low birth weight and fetal malaria might also affect neurodevelopment).

Findings revealed that mice that had been exposed to malaria during pregnancy were at risk of impaired learning and memory, with symptoms of depressive-like behavior that persisted on and into adulthood, including decreased tissue levels of major neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, in specific regions of the brain. During the study, the researchers also saw changes in neurovascular developments in the brain of malaria-exposed mouse fetuses.

Researchers also tested for a specific immune system factor called C5a that had previously been linked to neurodevelopment and adverse birth outcomes following malaria-exposure in pregnancy and whether they played a role in the link between malaria during pregnancy and neurocognitive impairment they discovered; this revealed that mothers with defective C5a signaling showed both functional and genetic disruption of maternal C5a signaling restored neurotransmitter levels, rescuing the neurocognitive defects in the offspring.

The researchers note how the results "highlight a novel mechanism by which malaria in pregnancy may alter the neurocognitive development of millions of children prior to birth," according to a news release

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