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Foetal Brain Development

Foetal Brain Development

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The human brain is a highly complex organ that performs all the tasks and functions at an unimaginable level throughout the life.

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

The precision with which the brain works is unmatched and it is definitely one of the most important parts of our body.

100 billion neurons develop from one cell.

At the time of the birth, a baby’s brain consists of 100 billion neurons. These neurons are arranged under different groups that perform diverse functions such as interpreting sounds, storing memories and learning new skills.

Brain development. Like every other part of the human body, the brain is also developed from a single fertilized cell. The development begins at a very early stage, during the time an embryo is planted in the uterus. The process is complex and involves interweaving of both the genes as well as the environmental factors.

Genes and environment effect brain. Our genes govern a number of factors including the type of brain cells produced, its location and function. However, further development and realization of the full potential of a particular neuron depends on the stimulation it receives from the environment as well. Everything from sight to sound to stress and nutrition affects its development.

Brain develops throughout pregnancy. The human brain starts to develop from the first trimester and then continues to grow throughout the pregnancy. It goes through various stages of development like structuring and shaping, neuron evolution, pruning and protection etc.

First trimester

 Formation of the brain.

In the first trimester, the foundation for the formation of the fetal brain is laid. The brain acquires its shape, neurons are formed and the cortex starts to evolve.

Folate reserves are important. It is necessary to build up folate reserves in women during the non-pregnant and non-lactating states. This is necessary to avoid the risks of adverse outcome in pregnancy.

Neural tube formation. In the fourth week, a part of the neural plate folds inwards to form the neural tube which grows in the spinal cord. At this stage, the cells of the neural tube begin to divide rapidly to form multiple layers in the neural tube. The deficiency of folic acid leads to spina bifida , The first 4 weeks are very critical stages in brain development. During this phase an intake of folic acid (500 µg/day) is recommended by ICMR.

The second trimester

A period of growth.

This trimester of pregnancy is particularly significant for the fetal brain development. During this trimester the brain evolves from a primitive structure to a much more complex and advanced organ.

Shaping of the brain. By the time the mother enters the second month of pregnancy, the baby’s brain has already begun to take shape. By this time forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain and the ventricles would have already formed.

Rapid brain growth in second month. The brain develops rapidly during the second month of foetal development because the foundations for all the sensory developments are laid during this phase. During the second and the third months the brain acquires almost all of its different tissues. The structures of the entire brain parts are also formed. As soon as this happens, the brain takes over the functioning part and your baby’s sensory and motor developments may begin.

Development of cerebral cortex. The last structure to evolve is the cerebral cortex. Cerebral cortex is considered to be the most complex part of the brain and also considered to be the site for “higher functions” such as learning, language and abstract thought. It is also considered to be the seat of intelligence. The cerebral cortex begins to develop in the eighth week of embryonic growth but continues to evolve throughout much of the prenatal period.  In fact the development and maturation of the cerebral cortex is an ongoing process and depending upon the availability of stimulus it may continue throughout the life.

Neuron formation. The cells help in building the brain, especially the cerebellum. The neurons are the brain cells that do the actual work of thinking and controlling movements by transmitting the stimuli.

Neuron proliferation. As the cerebral cortex gains maturity, the neurons also begin to proliferate, elongate and form nerves to reach the designated target tissues.

Third trimester

 Pruning and Protection.

During the last trimester of pregnancy, the earlier processes of cell growth continue to some extent and synapses continue to form all over the brain. Along with it, two new processes begin – cell pruning and neuron protection.

Cell pruning. First the unnecessary cells and connections are pruned. This is known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Apoptosis helps in balancing out the unnecessary and extra growth of neurons.

Neuron protection. The second process is the protection of vulnerable neurons and connections. Also known as myelination, this process occurs at different times for different parts of brain and nervous system and may continue well into childhood.

Factors affecting brain development.

External environment, food, the age of the parent and quite a few other factors further influence the growth of the brain.

Nature and nurture. The formation and development of the brain is equally influenced by genetic as well as environmental factors. Genes largely effect the formation of neural cells and neurons while environmental factors like nutrition, medicines and stress levels also contribute significantly to brain development.

Nutrients for brain development. A healthy balanced diet throughout the pregnancy is a prerequisite for healthy and appropriate development of the brain as well as the other parts of your fetus’s body. However, some nutrients like folic acid, zinc, iodine and DHA have significant roles in brain development.

Folic acid. Folic acid plays a vital role in the neural tube formation. Any deficiency of folic acid in the mother can lead to folic acid deficiency in fetus. This can result in neural tube defects in the foetus. One example of such complication is spina bifida.Therefore, the folic acid requirements for a pregnant woman are much higher than for a normal adult woman. ICMR recommends an intake of 500 µg of folic acid per day during pregnancy. This is much higher than the 200µg folic acid recommended for a normal adult woman. Most gynaecologists also recommend folic acid supplements in the initial stages of pregnancy.

Zinc. Zinc enhances the absorption of folic acid. Thus it is also significant in preventing neural tube defects.

Iodine. Iodine is a key nutrient that helps in the proper brain development of a fetus. Iodine deficiency during pregnancy can lead to a baby being born with mental retardation or cerebral palsy.

DHA. Consuming DHA and its precursor linolenic acid during pregnancy has positive effects on the brain development of a fetus. During the last trimester mazimum DHA is transferred to the foetus from the mother.

A healthy and balanced diet is therefore important to promote proper brain development. Your gynaecologist gets the blood tests done to rule out any deficiencies and if needed she may prescribe supplements for folic acid, iron or other vitamins and

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