A study by researchers from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine suggests that expectant mothers with gestational diabetes may have a higher likelihood to have babies with attention problems.

“The literature shows that differences in some of the ERP (event-related potential) performances are predictive of attention problems,” said Dr Cai Shirong, senior research fellow and lead researcher from NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

Babies of diabetic mothers focus on background noise

The study is part of an ongoing project known as Growing Up In Singapore Towards Health Outcomes (Gusto), which began in 2009, and analysed data from 473 babies out of whom 74 were born to mothers with gestational diabetes.

Using the ERP technique, researchers measured babies’ brain activity in response to specific stimuli, which were a “standard” sound and an “oddball” sound of either “ma” or “na”.

While standard sounds are usually regarded as background noise and ignored, the study revealed that babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes paid more attention to background noise and were also not responding as well to odd, infrequent sounds compared to babies whose mothers did not have diabetes during pregnancy.

“We don’t yet know whether it will translate to attention problems later in life,” said Cai, who cautioned that the study involved only babies aged six months and 18 months, and analysis at present was preliminary.

The team intends to follow up with these babies in order to assess whether attention problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) develop later on.

More research needed to defeat gestational diabetes

According to the head of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Neurodevelopment Research Centre, Dr Anne Rifkin-Graboi, the babies involved n the study were not exceptionally large, which indicated a likelihood that their mothers managed their diabetes with treatment.

“But yet we still saw a subtle effect on the brain,” said Rifkin-Graboi, who is a senior author of the paper.

"So maybe some of the risks from what is going on with the brain development is actually happening earlier than the second trimester, when the mothers are getting tested for gestational diabetes."

"The findings should prompt pregnant women to pay closer attention to their nutrition and physical activities during pregnancy to reduce their risk of developing gestational diabetes,” said head of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Diabetes Centre, Dr Bee Yong Mong.

Singapore has one of the highest rates of gestational diabetes worldwide, affecting one in five pregnant women in the country and leaving healthcare professionals and researchers battling for ways to defeat the statistics.

One such effort is a study called Nipper (Nutritional Intervention Preconception And During Pregnancy To Maintain Healthy Glucose Levels And Offspring Health) by researchers from the National University Health System, National University of Singapore, and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

The study is testing to see if a formulated special drink which contains myo-inositol, a compound found in vegetable and legumes, can prevent diabetes even before a baby is conceived.

According to Professor Chan Shiao-Yng, co-investigator of the study from NUH’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, diabetes is a growing global issue and affects many women of childbearing age.

"If they are female, they can pass this on to the next generation when they get pregnant. We want to break this cycle of disease," said Prof Chan. MIMS

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