Epidemiologic studies now strongly support the hypothesis, proposed over two decades ago, that developmental programming of the kidney impacts an individual's risk for hypertension and renal disease in later life. Low birth weight is the strongest current clinical surrogate marker for an adverse intrauterine environment and, based on animal and human studies, is associated with a low nephron number. Other clinical correlates of low nephron number include female gender, short adult stature, small kidney size, and prematurity. Low nephron number in Caucasian and Australian Aboriginal subjects has been shown to be associated with higher blood pressures, and, conversely, hypertension is less prevalent in individuals with higher nephron numbers. In addition to nephron number, other programmed factors associated with the increased risk of hypertension include salt sensitivity, altered expression of renal sodium transporters, altered vascular reactivity, and sympathetic nervous system overactivity. Glomerular volume is universally found to vary inversely with nephron number, suggesting a degree of compensatory hypertrophy and hyperfunction in the setting of a low nephron number. This adaptation may become overwhelmed in the setting of superimposed renal insults, e.g. diabetes mellitus or rapid catch-up growth, leading to the vicious cycle of on-going hyperfiltration, proteinuria, nephron loss and progressive renal functional decline. Many millions of babies are born with low birth weight every year, and hypertension and renal disease prevalences are increasing around the globe. At present, little can be done clinically to augment nephron number; therefore adequate prenatal care and careful postnatal nutrition are crucial to optimize an individual's nephron number during development and potentially to stem the tide of the growing cardiovascular and renal disease epidemics worldwide.
Keywords: Low birth weight; developmental programming; hypertension; kidney size; nephron number; renal disease.