A new study warns that malaria infection during pregnancy may impair memory and learning in offspring.

Published in the journal PLOS Pathogens on Sept. 24, this new research linked prenatal exposure to malaria to neurocognitive problems in offspring using mice as the model of experimental malaria in pregnancy.

The team of experts led by Kevin Kain of Canada's University of Toronto examined the neurocognitive ability of mice of normal birth weight that were exposed to malaria in the uterus but not directly infected.

Infant mice with exposure to malaria during pregnancy exhibited memory and learning issues, as well as depressive behavior continuing through adulthood.

The neurocognitive deficits, the researchers said, are linked to decreased levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine—the major neurotransmitters in specific brain regions.

The researchers also pushed the technology through imaging blood vessels in the uterus, seeing changes in neurovascular development in the brain of malaria-exposed mouse fetuses.

They also tested whether C5a, a particular immune system factor, played a role in the connection between malaria during pregnancy and the neurocognitive deficits they discovered.

C5a, a potent inflammatory peptide, had been previously associated with both neurodevelopmental issues and adverse birth outcomes after malaria exposure in the uterus.

The functional and genetic disruption of maternal c5a signaling restored the levels of neurotransmitters and fully rescued the said defects in the offspring. This means those with faulty C5a signaling, who experienced malaria while pregnant, mothered malaria-exposed children without recognizable neurocognitive defects.

The findings offer a new way through which malaria during pregnancy may change the neurocognitive state and development of millions of children even before they are born.

The researchers confirmed that another study is in the works to test the findings in African children exposed to malaria in utero. The data, they said, suggest that malaria during pregnancy is a factor to be targeted to help enhance cognitive development and school performance in malaria-stricken areas.

About 125 million pregnancies worldwide are at risk for malaria infection each year.

"[Malaria in pregnancy] has profound maternal and fetal health consequences including increased risk of maternal anemia, preterm birth, stillbirth, fetal growth restriction (FGR) and low birth weight infants (LBW), resulting in an estimated 200,000 infant deaths annually," warned the study.

Photo: Ed Uthman | Flickr

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