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Maternal Obesity, Gestational Diabetes, and Central Nervous System Birth Defects

Anderson, James L.*; Waller, D Kim*; Canfield, Mark A.; Shaw, Gary M.; Watkins, Margaret L.§; Werler, Martha M.

doi: 10.1097/
Original Article

Background: Maternal obesity and diabetes are both associated with increased risk of congenital central nervous system (CNS) malformations in the offspring and may share a common underlying mechanism. Our objective was to evaluate whether gestational diabetes influenced the association of prepregnancy maternal obesity and risks for CNS birth defects.

Methods: This Texas population-based case-control study evaluated births occurring January 1997 through June 2001. Data came from structured telephone interviews. Cases (n = 477) were mothers of offspring with anencephaly (n = 120), spina bifida (n = 184), holoprosencephaly (n = 49), or isolated hydrocephaly (n = 124). Controls (n = 497) were mothers of live infants without abnormalities randomly selected from the same hospitals as cases. Response rates were approximately 60% for both cases and controls. We evaluated maternal obesity (body mass index ≥30.0 kg/m2) and risks for CNS birth defects, as well as whether gestational diabetes influenced the risks.

Results: After adjusting for maternal ethnicity, age, education, smoking, alcohol use, and periconceptional vitamin use, obese women had substantially increased risks of delivering offspring with anencephaly (odds ratio = 2.3; 95% confidence interval = 1.2–4.3), spina bifida (2.8; 1.7–4.5), or isolated hydrocephaly (2.7; 1.5–5.0), but not holoprosencephaly (1.4; 0.5–3.8). Odds ratios were higher for the joint effects of maternal obesity and gestational diabetes, with evidence for interaction on a multiplicative scale.

Conclusions: Maternal obesity and gestational diabetes may increase the risk of CNS birth defects through shared causal mechanisms.

From *The University of Texas, Houston Health Science Center, School of Public Health, Houston, Texas; the †Texas Department of Health, Texas Birth Defects Monitoring Division, Bureau of Epidemiology, Austin, Texas; the ‡California Birth Defects Monitoring Program Oakland, California; the §Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Atlanta, Georgia; and the ∥Slone Epidemiology Unit, School of Public Health, Boston University School of Medicine, Brookline, Massachusetts.

Submitted 13 May 2003; final version accepted 26 September 2004.

Funding for this study was provided in part by the Texas Birth Defects Research Center, Texas Birth Defects Monitoring Division at the Texas Department of Health, through cooperative Agreement No. U50/CCU613232 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Correspondence: James L. Anderson, Department of Public Health, College of Public and Allied Health, East Tennessee State University, Box 70674, Johnson City, TN 37614-0674. E-mail:

Five large case-control studies1–5 and one cohort study6 have reported that maternal obesity before pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of neural tube defects, and one study1 also suggested that maternal obesity may be associated with other types of central nervous system (CNS) birth defects. Maternal diabetes mellitus before pregnancy (pregestational diabetes) is an established risk factor for congenital malformations, including CNS birth defects.7–11 Poor glycemic control during the first trimester, as compared with later in pregnancy, is associated with the highest risk.12–15 Diabetes first diagnosed during pregnancy (gestational diabetes) may also be associated with some types of CNS malformations, although the evidence is less conclusive.16–19

Obesity and diabetes demonstrate similar metabolic abnormalities, including insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia, and the increased risk of birth defects associated with each condition may share a common underlying metabolic disorder.2,20 We evaluated whether gestational diabetes influenced associations between maternal obesity and CNS birth defects, including neural tube defects (anencephaly and spina bifida), isolated hydrocephaly, and holoprosencephaly.

Because gestational diabetes is diagnosed later in pregnancy than when most birth defects occur, we considered it a potential marker for an underlying metabolic abnormality that occurs during early embryologic development.

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The population-based Texas Birth Defects Monitoring Program of the Texas Department of Health actively ascertained all infants and fetuses with birth defects that were included in our study. Live births (with defects diagnosed at up to 1 year of age), late fetal deaths, and elective terminations of any gestational age were eligible for inclusion.21 Case mothers had pregnancies affected by holoprosencephaly, anencephaly, spina bifida, or isolated hydrocephalus. Diagnoses were based on the International Classification of Diseases, 9th Revision (ICD-9) and given hierarchical preference in the phenotypic order previously stated. Chromosomal abnormalities and syndromes of known etiology were excluded. Control mothers gave birth to live infants without structural birth malformations.

Our study, the Texas Interview for Prevention of Central Nervous System Birth Defects, was designed as an add-on component to the National Birth Defects Prevention Study. The national study, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is an 8-state case-control study that examines risk factors for 35 major birth defects; the study design and questionnaire development have been described previously.22 The Texas study evaluates only CNS birth defects. Women participating in the Texas study agreed to answer the telephone interview questionnaire for the national study and also agreed to complete a second add-on interview.

Geographic areas eligible for the Texas CNS study were phased-in, starting with births on January 1, 1997, from 6 of the 11 public health regions in Texas. As the Texas Birth Defects Monitoring Program expanded its surveillance, the Texas CNS study was expanded to include additional public health regions, and eligibility became statewide on July 1, 2000.

Controls were live births randomly selected from the same hospitals as cases. The number of controls from each hospital was based on the proportion contributed by that hospital to the total live births for a geographic area during the previous year. Our current study analyzes data only from the national study telephone interview questionnaire, not the add-on questionnaire.

Study participants had births or pregnancy terminations occurring from January 1997 through June 2001. Interviews were conducted a mean of 21 months (range, 7–36 months) after estimated conception date for cases and a mean of 20 months (range, 9–35 months) after estimated conception date for controls. Participation was approximately 60% for both cases and controls; 477 case mothers and 497 control mothers completed the 60-minute telephone interview.

Maternal prepregnancy body mass index (BMI) is given in kilograms/meter2 based on self-reported prepregnancy maternal weight and height. We used the analytic categories of BMI currently recommended by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the World Health Organization (<18.5, 18.5–24.9, 25.0–29.9, 30.0–34.9, 35.0–39.9, and ≥40.0 kg/m2).23 Maternal obesity was defined as a prepregnancy BMI of ≥30.0 kg/m2. As a result of missing height or weight variables, we calculated BMI for only 410 (86%) case mothers and 416 (84%) control mothers. BMI was available for 42 (86%) holoprosencephaly, 98 (82%) anencephaly, 158 (86%) spina bifida, and 112 (84%) hydrocephaly cases. Missing BMI varied by maternal ethnicity and language of interview: white (7%), Hispanic who interviewed in English (18%), Hispanic who interviewed in Spanish (38%), and other ethnic groups combined (14%).

The variables of gestational age and birth outcome were obtained from medical records. All other variables, including the presence or absence of diabetes, as well as weight and height before pregnancy, were obtained from the telephone interviews. Diabetes was classified as pregestational (type 1 or type 2 diabetes present before pregnancy) or gestational (first diagnosed during pregnancy).

Odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (95% CIs) were used to estimate relative risks. If there were fewer than 5 combined cases or controls, or if there were no cases or controls in a category, the ORs were not calculated. We used multivariate logistic regression to control for potential confounding and to evaluate potential interaction.

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Table 1 presents demographic factors and birth outcomes for cases and controls. Of the 477 cases, 120 were anencephaly, 184 spina bifida, 49 holoprosencephaly, and 124 isolated hydrocephalus. Most mothers were white or Hispanic. Among Hispanic women, Spanish as the language of interview was more likely for mothers of infants with anencephaly (36%) or spina bifida (26%) compared with control mothers (19%). Mothers of infants with holoprosencephaly or hydrocephaly were more likely to have a lower educational level as compared with control mothers.



Maternal diabetes and associated risk for types of CNS birth defects are presented in Table 2. Type 1 or type 2 diabetes before pregnancy (pregestational diabetes) was strongly associated with holoprosencephaly (adjusted OR = 47; 95% CI = 9.5–230) and isolated hydrocephaly (12; 2.9–47). Risk was not elevated for anencephaly (0.8; 0.1–9.1) or spina bifida (0.4; 0–4.4). Because pregestational diabetes is an established risk factor for CNS birth defects and our focus was on diabetes diagnosed during pregnancy (gestational diabetes), cases of pregestational diabetes were excluded from subsequent analyses.



The risk associated with gestational diabetes was increased only for holoprosencephaly (adjusted OR = 2.9; CI = 1.0–8.4) (Table 2). Mothers of infants with anencephaly were less likely to have gestational diabetes compared with control mothers (0.3; 0.1–1.2).

Associations for maternal BMI categories and types of CNS birth defects are shown in Table 3. Elevated risks were observed for maternal obesity (in the 3 categories of BMI ≥30 kg/m2) and all types of CNS birth defects. Risks were increased most consistently in the 2 highest BMI categories of maternal obesity for spina bifida and hydrocephaly. Underweight women (BMI <18.5 kg/m2) had a decreased risk for spina bifida (OR = 0.3, 95% CI = 0.1–1.1). Being underweight did not appear to be associated with risk for anencephaly, isolated hydrocephaly, or holoprosencephaly. Maternal obesity (BMI ≥30 kg/m2) was associated with an increased risk of neural tube defects and isolated hydrocephaly for all maternal ethnic groups (data not shown).



Table 4 shows the association of maternal obesity (BMI ≥30 kg/m2) and risk for CNS birth defects. After adjusting for potential confounders, maternal obesity (BMI ≥30 kg/m2) was associated with increased risks of delivering offspring with anencephaly (OR = 2.3; CI = 1.2–4.3), spina bifida (2.8; 1.7–4.5), or isolated hydrocephaly (2.7; 1.5–5.0).



Table 5 presents stratified analysis results for the interaction of the joint effects of maternal obesity (BMI ≥30 kg/m2) and gestational diabetes (after excluding pregestational diabetes). Obesity alone increased risk for anencephaly (adjusted OR = 2.0; CI = 1.1–3.6), spina bifida (2.6; 1.6–4.3), or hydrocephaly (2.3; 1.3–4.2). Gestational diabetes alone did not show increased risk for any CNS birth defects. Based on results for single exposures, expected odds ratios with multiplicative interaction for the joint exposures of maternal obesity and gestational diabetes are 2.1 for spina bifida, 1.4 for holoprosencephaly, and 4.4 for hydrocephaly. The results for the joint effects supported multiplicative interaction for spina bifida (adjusted OR = 4.5; 95% CI = 1.5–13) and holoprosencephaly (6.5; 1.3–31). The other CNS birth defects did not show evidence of interaction.



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Obese women in our study had an increased risk of delivering offspring with isolated hydrocephaly. Only 1 other study has examined the association between maternal obesity and hydrocephaly.24 That study of 14 hydrocephaly cases found a 1.5-fold increased risk, possibly as a result of chance. Similar to previous studies, we observed that maternal obesity is associated with an increased risk for neural tube defects, that the risk with maternal obesity is greater for spina bifida than for anencephaly, and that the risk for spina bifida is decreased in underweight women.1–6 We also confirmed the previously reported findings that pregestational diabetes is associated with increased risk for holoprosencephaly and isolated hydrocephaly and that gestational diabetes is related to an increased risk of holoprosencephaly.7,9,16,17,25

For spina bifida and holoprosencephaly, the odds ratios for the joint effects of maternal diabetes and maternal obesity were consistent with multiplicative interaction, supporting the hypothesis that these risk factors operate through a shared causal mechanism. Hydrocephaly showed lack of evidence for interaction, suggesting independent causal mechanisms for these risk factors. Because of imprecise results, caution is indicated when considering these interpretations. Lack of evidence for interaction with anencephaly may be the result of bias. For anencephaly, 2.5% of mothers reported gestational diabetes compared with 5.9% or more for controls and other cases. This disparity is probably the result of early pregnancy terminations for anencephaly: 40% before 21 weeks gestation for anencephaly compared with 5% or less for other CNS birth defects.

The interactions we observed with gestational diabetes and maternal obesity are consistent with findings from a recent prospective study of 22,951 pregnant women.26 Maternal obesity (defined in that study as a BMI ≥28 kg/m2) and maternal diabetes of all types (including gestational diabetes) were not associated with increased risks for birth defects when examined as solitary exposures. However, mothers with both obesity and diabetes demonstrated a 3-fold increased risk for all birth defects combined compared with nonobese, nondiabetic mothers. Moore et al.26 interpreted these findings as suggestive of a synergistic effect for obesity and diabetes in the pathogenesis of birth defects. The sample size in that study was too small to evaluate individual types of congenital malformations such as CNS birth defects.

Potential limitations need to be considered when interpreting our findings. The 60% response rate for both case and control mothers raises the possibility that control mothers represent a self-selected population. For control mothers, 13.9% reported a BMI of ≥30 kg/m2 as compared with 26.3% for case mothers. Most (71%) control mothers were 29 years of age or less. The 1998 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System for the United States found that among women 18 to 29 years of age, 12% reported a BMI ≥30 kg/m2, as did 17% of 30 to 39 year olds.27 Thus, obesity percentages of control mothers were reasonably similar to a comparable age group nationally, making selection bias unlikely as an explanation for our findings. Missing BMI variables were common for Hispanic mothers, especially those who interviewed in Spanish. However, the percent of cases (14%) with missing BMI values did not differ from controls (16%). Consequently, missing BMI is also an unlikely explanation for our findings.

Reasons for an association between maternal obesity and CNS birth defects are unknown. For neural tube defects, any exposure effect occurs early in pregnancy because neural tube formation is complete by day 28 in normal human embryos.28 Obese women may have some metabolic abnormality or nutritional deficiency that disrupts development of the embryo early in pregnancy. The reasons that maternal diabetes is associated with an increased risk for CNS birth defects are also unknown. As postulated for maternal obesity, the increased risk may be the result of a metabolic abnormality early in pregnancy. This hypothesis is supported by the observation that poor glycemic control early in pregnancy for mothers with pregestational or gestational diabetes increases the risk for some birth defects.7,29

Although gestational diabetes occurs too late in pregnancy to be considered a direct risk factor, it may be associated with other preexisting factors that are directly associated with the development of birth defects. A recent study that evaluated the association of gestational diabetes and chromosomal anomalies in offspring supports the hypothesis that gestational diabetes may be a marker for other underlying metabolic abnormalities.30 Moore et al. suggested that women who develop gestational diabetes might have underlying biochemical abnormalities related to the development of chromosomal defects early in pregnancy. Another recent study2 that evaluated postpartum hyperinsulinemia, present both with obesity and diabetes, and risk for neural tube defects also provides support for this hypothesis. Because hyperinsulinemia is associated with impaired glucose tolerance and diabetes, Hendricks et al.2 suggested that the increased risk for birth defects associated with hyperinsulinemia might be the result of an adverse event such as hyperglycemia at a critical time in early pregnancy.

Obesity and diabetes have metabolic abnormalities in common, including insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia.20 Insulin resistance typically occurs with obesity, although individuals with normal weight may also have insulin resistance. There is evidence that an increased amount of centrally distributed fat may be more strongly related to insulin resistance than obesity per se. Also, the ability of pancreatic islet β-cells to respond to insulin resistance varies among individuals. Perhaps mothers who develop gestational diabetes are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of obesity during pregnancy.

Obesity and the associated risks of diabetes are rapidly increasing in the United States. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System reported that from 1991 to 1998 the prevalence of obesity (BMI ≥30 kg/m2) in women 18 years of age and older increased from 12% to 18%.27 CNS birth defects are severe and often lethal malformations that affect more than 1 of every 1000 pregnancies in the United States.31–35 Our findings support the hypothesis that an increased risk for CNS birth defects is associated with maternal obesity and diabetes, including gestational diabetes. Our observations also support the hypothesis that maternal diabetes and obesity share a common mechanism for the risk for neural tube defects and perhaps holoprosencephaly. Although the underlying mechanisms for these relationships remain unclear, our findings provide support for the need for preventive measures to reduce the increased obesity and diabetes in the United States.

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