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Neural tube and early brain development

Infant and Children, Pregnancy | December 2, 2020 | Author: Naturopath

Brain, pregnancy, infants

Neural tube and early brain development

The formation of a healthy neural tube and its continued development into a healthy brain is a critical time in the life of embyo to young infant. Offering the best nutritional support, emotional care and a safe and healthy environment can help avoid developmental issues and provide the stage for optimal brain function. 

How it all begins

The neural tube is one of the most important components of embryotic development, because it becomes the brain and spinal cord. The neural tube is the first stage in building the central nervous system. Embryos of vertebrates all have a neural tube before the central nervous system is developed.

After the development of the neural tube there are four stages of subdivision which occurs before completion of the final central nervous system. The neural epithelial tissue instigate the divisions which take place in the prosencephalon, the mesencephalon, the rhombencephalon, and the spinal cord. The end result is a brain, spine and spinal cord, which continues to develop during pregnancy and into the early years of life.

There are two different ways the neural tube can develop. These are primary neurulation or secondary neurulation.

  • Primary neurulation involves the cells around the neural plate instigating the formation of the neural tube.
  • Secondary neurulation forms a hollow tube from cells which then become the neural tube.

Concerning problems in neural tube development

Most defect which occur with neural tube development happen during the first month of pregnancy, often before a pregnancy is known, and results in defect of the brain, spinal cord or spine. The most known developmental issues are spina bifida, encephalocele and anencephaly.

Spina bifida  
results due to an incomplete development of the spinal column, in which case, it never fully closes. This rcauses partial or complete paralysis of the lower limbs.

In anencephaly, the brain and skull fail to fully develop resulting in natural abortion of the embryo during pregnancy or not long after birth.

With encephalocele, the top of the neural tube has not completely formed. The skull doesn’t form properly to protect the brain and part of the brain may bulge out. Some babies die or are stillborn or in cases of mild encephalocele, babies might have intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, seizures or other problems.

Brain development and behaviour

In general, the development of the brain begins only a few weeks after conception and progresses into early adulthood, with the most development happening prenatal and in early childhood. The early stages of brain development impact the later stages of development and experiences in the early years of life affect how well the brain developes. The foundations of memory, decision making, and emotion are constructed during these early years and continue to develop well into childhood.

Much of the structure and capacity of the brain is shaped before the age of 3 years

Thinking about having a baby?

Wanting to give baby the best chance for optimal cognitive, social and behavioural development can come down to three main factors:

  • Providing the best nutrition and avoiding nutritional deficiencies
  • Reducing inflammation and toxic stress
  • Providing a safe and supportive network for mother and infant

Macro and micro nutrients critical in brain development

Folate - is one of the most important nutrients to reduce the risk of a neural tube defect. Folate should be taken before and during pregnancy and is available through supplemental form. In the diet leavy green vegetables, beet root, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, avocado, orange, liver and wholegrain cereals contain folate.

The recommended dose is 0.5 mg of folate every day. For people who have a higher risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect, such as those with a family history of neural tube defects, a higher dose of folate will be recommended by your doctor.
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Iodine - The role iodine plays in brain development is its nutritional support for thyroid hormone synthesis. In the first trimester of pregnancy, the foetal T3 production is reliant completely on maternal T4 supply. Severe iodine deficiency will result in mental retardation or cretinism – extremely low IQ, and deficits in speech, hearing and gait. Supplementing with iodine in early pregnancy with risks of iodine deficiency will result in improved cognitive behaviour.

Iron - Infants can be particularly susceptible to iron deficiency due their rapid growth and low iron storage capacity. Iron is needed to carry oxygen around the body in red blood cells and is involved in central nervous system processes. Deficiency can affect behaviour, growth and development.

Zinc deficiency in early life is associated with decreased learning, attention, memory and poor mood.

Protein is essential for growth and development of foetus and infant. Protein is found in meat, fish, chicken, dairy based foods, soy proteins, and combinations of nuts, seeds and legumes. 

Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids  - especially docosohexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA), during gestational period, lactation and early childhood for improved cognitive function.
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The environment

Whist prenatal development is regulated by genetics, the environment plays a crucial role in nurturing the best positive developmental outcomes. There are many ways help to shape the brain and behaviour some of which include:

  • The environmentOffering a variety of stimuli such as singing, book reading and discussion, physical play and exploration.
  • Interact with infants and respond to their moods and fears in a positive and nurturing way.
  • Providing a loving and caring environment where infants feel safe and secure.
  • Recognising the individuality of the child and allowing them to develop at their own pace, whilst being aware of expected developmental time frames.
  • Establishing routine, such as rest times, meal times, bath times and quiet times.

Reducing toxic load

Environmental exposure to toxins, such as alcohol and tobacco smoke, and infectious diseases, such as viruses (cytomegalovirus and Zika virus for example), emotional trauma of mother such as stress and depression, can profoundly alter the neural developmental of a rapidly growing foetus affecting both physical and mental health of both the mother and baby.

Reducing inflammation

Inflammation is a normal defence response of the body to environmental and internal insults. Inflammation in the body can be due to obesity, diet, drugs, infections and other foreign invaders. Inflammation is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows the body to deal with a potentially harmful situation, however, inflammation in pregnancy has also been linked to mental disorders in children. These can include bipolar, schizophrenia, Attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Help reduce inflammation in pregnancy

Avoid pathogens and support immunity. This means staying away from people who are sick, following healthy hygiene practices, getting good quality sleep and rest, and following a nutritious diet. Supplement with a good quality pregnancy multivitamin, vitamin C and probiotic.
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Diet. Remove processed, highly refined foods, trans fatty acids and hydrogenated oils from the diet as these generally are pro-inflammatory.

Avoid smoking and smoke. Smoking is a toxic exposure that triggers an immune inflammatory response.

Address injuries. Follow first aid protocols to reduce inflammation if injured.

Exercise to support circulation and release anti-inflammatory mediators.

Reduce stress. Stress raises cortisol levels which can then inhibit the immune response to viral infection.

Environmental toxins. Mercury, aluminum, pesticides and BPHs in plastic are found in many popular house-hold items and have been found to be pro-inflammatory. Replace with environmental and non-toxic items where possible.
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The Basics of Brain Development

Brain Development and the Role of Experience in the Early Years

The Role of Nutrition in Brain Development: The Golden Opportunity of the “First 1000 Days”

Long-Lasting Neural and Behavioral Effects of Iron Deficiency in Infancy

Iodine Deficiency in Pregnancy: The Effect on Neurodevelopment in the Child

The implications of iodine and its supplementation during pregnancy in fetal brain development

Maternal Inflammation, Fetal Brain Implications and Suggested Neuroprotection: A Summary of 10 Years of Research in Animal Models

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