Maternal Western diet programs cardiometabolic dysfunction and hypothalamic inflammation via epigenetic mechanisms predominantly in the male offspring

Mol Metab. 2024 Feb:80:101864. doi: 10.1016/j.molmet.2023.101864. Epub 2023 Dec 28.


Objective: Maternal exposure during pregnancy is a strong determinant of offspring health outcomes. Such exposure induces changes in the offspring epigenome resulting in gene expression and functional changes. In this study, we investigated the effect of maternal Western hypercaloric diet (HCD) programming during the perinatal period on neuronal plasticity and cardiometabolic health in adult offspring.

Methods: C57BL/6J dams were fed HCD for 1 month prior to mating with regular diet (RD) sires and kept on the same diet throughout pregnancy and lactation. At weaning, offspring were maintained on either HCD or RD for 3 months resulting in 4 treatment groups that underwent cardiometabolic assessments. DNA and RNA were extracted from the hypothalamus to perform whole genome methylation, mRNA, and miRNA sequencing followed by bioinformatic analyses.

Results: Maternal programming resulted in male-specific hypertension and hyperglycemia, with both males and females showing increased sympathetic tone to the vasculature. Surprisingly, programmed male offspring fed HCD in adulthood exhibited lower glucose levels, less insulin resistance, and leptin levels compared to non-programmed HCD-fed male mice. Hypothalamic genes involved in inflammation and type 2 diabetes were targeted by differentially expressed miRNA, while genes involved in glial and astrocytic differentiation were differentially methylated in programmed male offspring. These data were supported by our findings of astrogliosis, microgliosis and increased microglial activation in programmed males in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN). Programming induced a protective effect in male mice fed HCD in adulthood, resulting in lower protein levels of hypothalamic TGFβ2, NF-κB2, NF-κBp65, Ser-pIRS1, and GLP1R compared to non-programmed HCD-fed males. Although TGFβ2 was upregulated in male mice exposed to HCD pre- or post-natally, only blockade of the brain TGFβ receptor in RD-HCD mice improved glucose tolerance and a trend to weight loss.

Conclusions: Our study shows that maternal HCD programs neuronal plasticity in the offspring and results in male-specific hypertension and hyperglycemia associated with hypothalamic inflammation in mechanisms and pathways distinct from post-natal HCD exposure. Together, our data unmask a compensatory role of HCD programming, likely via priming of metabolic pathways to handle excess nutrients in a more efficient way.

Keywords: Cardiometabolic disease; Diabetes; Epigenetics; Hypertension; Hypothalamic inflammation; Hypothalamus; Maternal nutrition; Methylation; miRNA regulation.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cardiovascular Diseases* / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2* / metabolism
  • Diet, Western
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Female
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hyperglycemia* / metabolism
  • Hypertension*
  • Hypothalamus / metabolism
  • Inflammation / genetics
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • MicroRNAs* / genetics
  • MicroRNAs* / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / genetics
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / metabolism


  • Glucose
  • MicroRNAs