Epigenetic changes in the hypothalamus of offspring following maternal undernutrition

  • Ghazala Begum

Student thesis: Unknown


'Epigenetic changes in the hypothalamus of offspring following maternal undernutrition', Ghazala Begum- September 2013 Doctor of Philosophy at the University of ManchesterEpidemiological studies show that offspring subjected to maternal undernutrition during early pregnancy are prone to developing obesity and other diseases in adulthood. The hypothalamic energy regulating pathway may be altered in these offspring, with epigenetic changes as a core mechanism. Therefore, this thesis aimed to determine if epigenetic changes are present in this pathway in the hypothalami from offspring subjected to maternal undernutrition. The investigations are focused on the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) as an inhibitor of the anorexigenic neuropeptide pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC), with potential modifications leading to increased food intake and the development of obesity.To achieve this, an established sheep model developed by our collaborators was used, during which maternal ewes were undernourished periconceptionally to produce a 10-15% decrease in body weight. We found that hypothalami from fetal offspring had greater epigenetic modifications when this reduction in maternal body weight was maintained from 60 days before conception until 30 days into pregnancy, with lower levels of POMC and GR promoter methylation. This was associated with increased GR mRNA expression. Other regions of the brain that also express POMC and GR, did not exhibit these epigenetic modifications. This study revealed that maternal undernutrition induces tissue specific epigenetic changes in fetal hypothalami which may contribute to disease in later life. Twins have been shown to have similar phenotypic characteristics as maternally undernourished offspring and therefore it has been suggested that they may also be programmed, but by intrauterine growth restriction. Consequently, extensive methylation and histone analysis of GR and POMC promoter regions was carried out in twin fetal hypothalami and compared to maternally undernourished groups. Interestingly, the decreased POMC and GR methylation of our amplicons in the maternally undernourished fetal hypothalami was also observed in twin fetal hypothalamic. This was concomitant with histone modifications and alterations in overall DNA methyltransferase activity. However, it was found that there were no changes in the POMC and GR mRNA expression levels in twin fetuses, but we postulate that this may occur later in life.To determine if changes in the fetal epigenetic status of hypothalamic GR and POMC impacted the adult progeny, tissues were obtained from adult offspring of maternally undernourished ewes. Epigenetic changes in the hypothalamic GR promoter observed in the fetal group persisted into adulthood, with concurrent increases in GR mRNA and GR protein expression. Of these groups the undernourished adult male offspring had decreased hypothalamic POMC expression and increased fat mass, changes that are consistent with an obese phenotype. The epigenetic and expression status of GR in the hippocampus and pituitary were modified, but in a tissue and sex specific manner. POMC epigenetic changes in the brain were complex, with various levels of epigenetic and expression changes.Overall periconceptional undernutrition induces hypothalamic specific changes in the epigenetic status of the GR gene which is known to regulate energy balance. Hypothalamic changes were persistent from the fetal stage into adulthood, with modifications in other tissues occurring after birth. These adaptations have the potential to increase the offspring's propensity to develop obesity and altered stress regulation in later life.
Date of Award1 Aug 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAnne White (Supervisor) & Melissa Westwood (Supervisor)


  • Maternal undernutrition
  • Epigenetics
  • Hypothalamic energy regulating pathway
  • Glucocorticoid receptor
  • Pro-opiomelanocortin

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