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December 26, 2015

In the early stages of development, neurons that synthesize serotonin develop in the fetal hindbrain, where heart, respiration and other critical functions reside, eventually building their way up to the forebrain, the home of higher cognition and emotional regulation. The study shows that during this gap between hindbrain and forebrain serotonin development, the placenta is an important source of serotonin to the forebrain - a process that could be affected by the mother's nutrition, since her diet is the only source for the essential amino acid tryptophan.

"An altered capacity of the placenta to make and release serotonin could affect the levels of serotonin in the human forebrain as it does in the mouse," said Levitt. "Developmental programming of the fetal brain can set the stage for adult-onset health impacts including heart disease, diabetes and mental illness."

The research relates to a growing body of evidence that subtle, deleterious effects on the fetus as it develops could lead to a lifetime of chronic mental health problems, including anxiety disorders, learning and emotional disabilities and depression.

"Bonnin's research may be of particular importance for early onset brain disorders, such as autism, Asperger's syndrome and pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder, where investigators are considering a role for serotonin based on human genetic studies," said Randy Blakely, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Conte Center and a collaborator on the paper.

Source: University of Southern California