Prenatal factors (emphasis on nutrition), one-carbon metabolism, epigenetic programming and early childhood neurodevelopment

The rates of neurodevelopmental disorders are rising. It is estimated 1 in 70 people in Australia are on the autism spectrum. Neurodevelopmental disorders have multiple contributing factors such as genetic, biological, and environmental. The environmental factors are of interest as understanding the role and mechanisms involved can accelerate public health translation.

The prenatal environment is a critical period that can affect many diseases in later life. This project aims to understand how various environmental factors such as nutrition and food contaminates alter different biological mechanisms related to a child’s neurodevelopment.

Prenatal exposures (such as poor maternal nutrition, dietary contaminants, and poor maternal mental health) create an adverse prenatal environment, which then drives adverse offspring health. Advances in our ability to measure prenatal biomarkers and molecular pathways in birth cohorts can now accelerate the pace of public health translation. In particular, pregnancy provides a finite interventional time window as the effects of prenatal programming can be lifelong. There is a rising trend of child neurodevelopmental disorders. Children with ASD and ADHD differ from other children with regard to the profile of how their genes are regulated by gene methylation in early life. Furthermore, nutritional deficiency during pregnancy is of emerging interest as nutrition is vitally important to maintain correct DNA methylation patterns.

The aim of the PhD project is to investigate how adverse prenatal maternal environments, with an emphasis on dietary intake, including contaminants, are associated with an increased risk of child neurodevelopmental problems through epigenetic programming using samples from a longitudinal study based in Australia. One of the main targets is to understand the metabolic pathway of choline, an essential nutrient important for brain development. These findings are of potential public health significance. The results for this project will help to understand and manipulate the prenatal determinants of specific gene methylation patterns so we could better prevent neurodevelopmental disorders. Likely outcomes include policy changes to Australian and international prenatal nutrition and supplementation recommendations and updated regulations in early life.

Research team

Research group


Lada Staskova (PhD candidate) – Project member

Murdoch Children Research Institute (Prof. Richard Saffery and team)
University of Calgary (Prof. Deborah Dewey and team)
University of British Columbia (Prof. Michael Kobor and team)