Iowa and Ohio researchers discover compound with the potential to protect prenatal brain development

A new study done in mice by researchers in Iowa and Ohio shows that a relatively new compound, P7C3-A20, has the ability to protect brain development during prenatal stress.



Photo of Director of Translational Neuroscience in the Department of Psychiatry Andrew Pieper.

Marco Oceguera, News Reporter

As a generation of babies are born in the middle of a global crisis, researchers in Iowa and Ohio discovered a compound with the potential to protect babies’ brain development from the harmful impacts of prenatal stress.

When babies are exposed to adverse stressful events during pregnancy, it can prevent their brains from developing properly. The new research conducted in baby mice could be a game-changer in combating the negative impacts of prenatal stress.

Hanna Stevens, who heads the Psychiatry and Early Neurobiological Development Lab at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, said there is data suggesting individuals exposed to prenatal stress are at higher risk for specific disorders later in life.

“There’s been evidence that there’s greater likelihood of diagnosis with Attention Deficit Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and anxiety disorders,” Stevens said.

Stevens added that exposure to prenatal stress can increase an individual’s risk for various other disorders as well, depending on an individual’s unique biological reaction to stressful events during pregnancy.

“It’s not so much the kind of stress that a person experiences, but sort of their biological response,” Stevens said.

UI graduate student Rachel Schroeder, who is studying neuroscience at the UI, said the project began about four years ago when she was inspired by the individual work of her two mentors, Stevens and Director of Translational Neuroscience in the Department of Psychiatry Andrew Pieper, during her first year of graduate school.

“I was thinking, you know, a lot of these phenotypes that I am seeing in the Stevens lab due to prenatal stress are lining up with things that they are fixing in the Pieper lab with this compound,” Schroeder said.

Stevens said the compound was proven to be effective at reversing the impacts of prenatal stress within the brains of baby mice.

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“[Schroeder] found that brain developmental genes were changed by the stress experience and then were again corrected by the compound,” Stevens said.

Schroeder said while this compound is still relatively new and its mechanisms are not fully understood, it seems to work by replenishing the levels of NAD that are available to cells.

“NAD is a very important molecule for energy metabolism,” Schroeder said. “So, if you don’t have enough energy, that can lead to damage in a number of different ways.”

Pieper, who is also an adjunct professor at the UI and Director of the Neurotherapeutics Center at Harrington Discovery Institute in Cleveland, is the group’s expert on the compound itself.

Pieper said he is optimistic about the potential effectiveness of administering P7C3-A20 to humans, considering its success in mice. P7C3-A20 is the scientific name for the neuroprotective compound that Pieper studies.

“We have given it to mice, to rats, and monkeys for extended periods of time, and in some cases, up to a year,” Pieper said. “We haven’t seen any side effects so far in our animal models, so that makes me optimistic.”

However, Pieper said promising trial results in other species do not guarantee how well the compound will work when it is tested in human subjects.

Schroeder said that it will take much time before the compound is approved for usage in humans and eventually made available to pregnant mothers.

“It’s a very, very long process and it is really difficult to develop a drug and get it all the way to the bedside, even in a single lifetime,” Schroeder said.