In the light of a general increase in caesarean sections, it’s somewhat alarming to read about a mouse study that found that vaginal birth triggers the expression of a protein in the brains of newborns that improves brain development, and this protein expression is impaired in the brains of those delivered by C-section.
The protein in question —mitochondrial uncoupling protein 2 (UCP2) — is important for the development of neurons and circuits in the hippocampus. Indeed, it has a wide role, being involved in regulation of fuel utilization, mitochondrial bioenergetics, cell proliferation, neuroprotection and synaptogenesis. UCP2 is induced by cellular stress.
Among the mice, natural birth triggered UCP2 expression in the hippocampus (presumably because of the stress of the birth), which was reduced in those who were born by C-section. Not only were levels of UCP2 lower in C-section newborns, they continued to be lower through to adulthood.
Cell cultures revealed that inhibiting UCP2 led to decreased number of neurons, neuron size, number of dendrites, and number of presynaptic clusters. Mice with (chemically or genetically) inhibited UCP2 also showed behavioral differences indicative of greater levels of anxiety. They explored less, and they showed poorer spatial memory.
The effects of reduced UCP2 on neural growth means that factors that encourage the growth of new synapses, such as physical exercise, are likely to be much less useful (if useful at all). Could this explain why exercise seems to have no cognitive benefits for a small minority? (I’m speculating here.)
Although the researchers don’t touch on this (naturally enough, since this was a laboratory study), I would also speculate that, if the crucial factor is stress during the birth, this finding applies only to planned C-sections, not to those which become necessary during the course of labor.
UCP2 is also a critical factor in fatty acid utilization, which has a flow-on effect for the creation of new synapses. One important characteristic of breast milk is its high content of long chain fatty acids. It’s suggested that the triggering of UCP2 by natural birth may help the transition to breastfeeding. This in turn has its own benefits for brain development.
 . Ucp2 Induced by Natural Birth Regulates Neuronal Differentiation of the Hippocampus and Related Adult Behavior. PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2012 ;7(8):e42911 - e42911. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0042911
Full text available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0042911