Prenatal famine exposure has sex-specific effects on brain size

Brain. 2016 Aug;139(Pt 8):2136-42. doi: 10.1093/brain/aww132. Epub 2016 Jul 8.


Early nutritional deprivation might cause irreversible damage to the brain. Prenatal exposure to undernutrition has been shown to be associated with increased central nervous system anomalies at birth and decreased cognitive function in adulthood. Little is known about the potential effect on the brain in older age. We investigated brain size and structure at age 68 years after prenatal famine exposure. T1-weighted structural magnetic resonance images of the brain were made in 118 Dutch famine birth cohort members. Of these 118 (44% male, age range 65-69 years), 41 had been exposed to famine in early gestation and 77 had been prenatally unexposed. Structural volumes were automatically assessed using FreeSurfer. Diffusion tensor imaging was performed and anisotropy and diffusivity were computed. Fluid attenuated inversion recovery was performed to assess white matter hyperintensities. Exposure to famine in early gestation was associated with smaller intracranial volume in males, but not females. Volumes of total brain, grey and white matter were also smaller in early exposed males, but these differences disappeared after adjusting for intracranial volume. Prenatally exposed males but not females, had a smaller intracranial and total brain volume compared to unexposed subjects. Our findings show that prenatal undernutrition permanently affected brain

Keywords: MRI; brain development; brain size; prenatal undernutrition; sex differences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Netherlands
  • Organ Size
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / diagnostic imaging*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / etiology
  • Sex Factors
  • Starvation / complications*
  • World War II