It is well acknowledged from observations in humans that iron deficiency during pregnancy can be associated with a number of developmental problems in the newborn and developing child. Due to the obvious limitations of human studies, the stage during gestation at which maternal iron deficiency causes an apparent impairment in the offspring remains elusive. In order to begin to understand the time window(s) during pregnancy that is/are especially susceptible to suboptimal iron levels, which may result in negative effects on the development of the fetus, we developed a rat model in which we were able to manipulate and monitor the dietary iron intake during specific stages of pregnancy and analyzed the developing fetuses. We established four different dietary-feeding protocols that were designed to render the fetuses iron deficient at different gestational stages. Based on a functional analysis that employed Auditory Brainstem Response measurements, we found that maternal iron restriction initiated prior to conception and during the first trimester were associated with profound changes in the developing fetus compared to iron restriction initiated later in pregnancy. We also showed that the presence of iron deficiency anemia, low body weight, and changes in core body temperature were not defining factors in the establishment of neural impairment in the rodent offspring.
Our data may have significant relevance for understanding the impact of suboptimal iron levels during pregnancy not only on the mother but also on the developing fetus and hence might lead to a more informed timing of iron supplementation during pregnancy.