Because of the key role that that the hypothalamus plays in controlling growth and many other critical survival functions, the Penn Vet researchers then screened the mouse genome for genes with differential expression in the hypothalamus, comparing normal mice, mice with reduced OGT and mice born to stressed mothers.
They identified several gene sets related to the structure and function of mitochrondria, the powerhouses of cells that are responsible for producing energy. And indeed, when compared by an enzymatic assay that examines mitochondria biogenesis, both the mice born to stressed mothers and mice born to mothers with reduced OGT had dramatically reduced mitochondrial function in their hypothalamus compared to normal mice. These studies were done in collaboration with Narayan Avadhani's lab at Penn Vet.
Such reduced function could explain why the growth patterns of mice appeared similar until weaning, at which point energy demands go up.
"If you have a really bad furnace you might be okay if temperatures are mild," Bale said. "But, if it's very cold, it can't meet demand. It could be the same for these mice. If you're in a litter close to your siblings and mom, you don't need to produce a lot of heat, but once you wean you have an extra demand for producing heat. They're just not keeping up."
Bale points out that mitochondrial dysfunction in the brain has been reported in both schizophrenia and autism patients.
In future work, Bale hopes to identify a suite of maternal plasma stress biomarkers that could signal an increased risk of neurodevelopmental disease for the baby.
"With that kind of a signature, we'd have a way to detect at-risk pregnancies and think about ways to intervene much earlier than waiting to look at the term placenta," she said.
|Contact: Katherine Unger Baillie|
University of Pennsylvania