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Sometimes, we feel a sudden and uncontrollable urge to eat a certain food. But if you're pregnant, you may feel these urges, known as cravings, quite often. There are many myths and popular beliefs regarding food cravings during pregnancy. Now, researchers from the University of Barcelona have identified the neuronal mechanisms that cause food cravings during pregnancy.
They have shown the alterations of the neuronal activity that drive cravings in an animal model. Their study was published in the journal Nature Metabolism.
March Claret, lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences of the University of Barcelona and head of the IDIBAPS Neuronal Control of Metabolism Group, led the study along with the researcher Roberta Haddad-T volli.
During pregnancy, a woman's body undergoes a series of physiological and behavioural changes to create a favourable environment for the development of the embryo.
In this study, the researchers found changes in the functional connections of the brain reward circuits, as well as the taste and sensorimotor centers in pregnant female mice.
Additionally, just like pregnant women, the mice became more sensitive to sweet food during pregnancy, and they develop binge-eating behaviours towards high calorie foods.
The alteration of these structures encouraged the researchers to explore the mesolimbic pathway, one of the signal transmission pathways of dopaminergic neurons. "Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter in motivational behaviour," said Claret, as quoted by Science Daily.
Further, they saw an increase in the levels of dopamine -- and the activity of its receptor, D2R -- in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region involved in the reward circuit.
Based on these finding, Haddad-T volli hypothesized that pregnancy induces a full reorganization of the mesolimbic neural circuits through the D2R neurons.
"These neuronal cells -- and their alteration -- would be responsible for the cravings, since food anxiety, typical during pregnancy, disappeared after blocking their activity," he was quoted as saying.
Pregnancy may make you crave for tasty and high calorie foods. But the researchers have cautioned that frequent consumption of high calorie foods could lead to weight gain and obesity, which can have negative effects on the baby's health.
The research team showed that persistent cravings affect the metabolism and development of neural circuits that regulate food intake, which leads to weight gain, anxiety and eating disorders.
Most studies highlighted the consequences of a mother's permanent habits -- such as obesity, malnutrition, or chronic stress on the offspring. However, this study indicated that short but recurrent behaviours, such as cravings, are enough to increase the psychological and metabolic vulnerability of the baby, Claret noted.
The authors are hopeful that the study finding could contribute to the improvement of nutritional guidelines for pregnant women to ensure a proper prenatal nutrition and prevent the development of diseases.