Epidemiological studies suggest a link between fetal/early infant nutrition and adult coronary artery disease. In the present study, we examined the effects of altering nutrition during gestation, lactation and juvenile life on aortic structure and function in rats. Wistar rat dams were fed either a control or low-protein diet throughout pregnancy, or a low-protein diet for the final 7 days of gestation only. At 21 days post-partum, male pups were weaned on to a control, low-protein or high-fat diet. At 12 weeks, the offspring rats were killed. In 46 rats, aortic sections were mounted and stained to assess media thickness and elastin content. In a further 38 rats, aortic rings were suspended in an organ bath and vascular reactivity was tested with dose–response curves to the endothelium-dependent dilator acetylcholine and the endothelium-independent dilator sodium nitroprusside. Rats exposed to maternal protein restriction while in utero had a significantly decreased aortic wall thickness compared with control rats (P=0.005). Total elastin content of the aorta was also decreased by both maternal low-protein (P=0.02) and early postnatal low-protein (P=0.01) diets. Neither maternal nor postnatal low-protein or high-fat diets, however, resulted in any significant changes in arterial dilator function. In conclusion, fetal undernutrition in rats, induced via a maternal low-protein diet, causes a decrease in aortic wall thickness and elastin content without altering aortic dilator function. These changes in vascular structure may amplify aging-related changes to the vasculature and contribute to the pathophysiology of the putative link between impaired fetal growth and adult cardiovascular disease.

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