A food supplement used by athletes and body builders
to boost muscle power might help to prevent brain damage
and death of newborn babies from oxygen starvation, researchers
Problems with the placenta and umbilical cord before
or during birth can reduce the fetal oxygen supply. One
in 300 babies in developed countries suffers birth injuries
as a result, and one in 20 babies in the UK are born by
emergency caesarean section because doctors worry they
may not be getting enough oxygen.
Now Zoe Ireland and David Walker at Monash University
in Melbourne, Australia, think they may have found a simple
way to reduce the risks.
They fed pregnant spiny mice a diet containing 5% of
the organic acid creatine,
which can protect cells by providing energy when oxygen
levels are low.
When the researchers starved the mice of oxygen just
before birth, 95% of pups whose mothers had been fed creatine
survived, compared to only 63% of pups whose mothers did
not receive the supplement.
"The pups of supplemented mice also grew better, and
this may be because their suckling reflex was less affected
by brain damage," says Ireland.
Creatine is produced by the body and obtained from meat
in the diet. To improve muscle performance, bodybuilders
and athletes frequently use creatine supplements, which
according to current medical opinion are safe to use -
if used correctly.
Recent research on humans suggests that creatine supplements
can also protect nerve cells from damage in patients with
Huntingdon's disease or after traumatic brain injury,
and that they may improve cognitive performance in vegetarians,
who have less creatine in their diet.
The current study is the first to look at the effects
of maternal creatine supplementation on the health of
the fetus. Unlike house mice, which are born very immature,
spiny mice are more comparable to human babies at birth,
with open eyes and more advanced brain development. This
makes them a good model to study questions about health
during birth, says Walker.
Theo Wallimann, a cell biologist at the Swiss Federal
Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich, agrees that that
the results may well hold true for humans.
"I am a strong advocate for creatine supplementation
during pregnancy. However, the creatine dose used in these
experiments was very high, and although preliminary trials
suggest that even premature babies can tolerate high doses
well, we obviously need more research", he says.
"We still need to prove that creatine can directly prevent
brain damage", says Patrick O'Brien, of the Royal College
of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London.
O'Brien believes that creatine supplementation could
become a potentially safe and easy protective intervention,
like folic acid supplementation, which is now recommended
to prevent neural tube such as spina bifida.
"Because such defects are thankfully rare, it also takes
very large studies to show a protective effect in humans,
so we still have a long way to go," he says.
Journal Reference: American
Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (DOI: 10.1016/j.ajog.2007.10.790)