Mothers with gestational diabetes – the type which develops during pregnancy, could be more likely to have babies with attention problems, a local study suggests.

The study found that these babies paid more attention to background noise, which should be ignored, compared to babies whose mothers did not have the condition. They also did not respond as well to odd, infrequent sounds.

To detect this, the event-related potential (ERP) technique was used, which measures brain response to a specific stimulus.

“The literature shows that differences in some of the ERP performances are predictive of attention problems,” said Dr Cai Shirong, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, who led the research.

But she cautioned that the analysis was preliminary, looking so far only at babies aged six months and 18 months.“We don’t yet know whether it will translate to attention problems later in life.”

So the team will be following up with the babies to assess if they do develop attention problems later on, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Children with ADHD have trouble focusing on certain tasks and subjects.

The research is part of an ongoing project called Growing Up In Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes (Gusto), which was started in 2009 with around 1,200 expectant women.

It continues to track the women and their children.

The latest study on attention analysed data from 473 babies, 74 of which were born to mothers who had gestational diabetes. The babies’ brain activity was tracked as they were played a “standard” sound and an “oddball” sound of either “ma” or “na”.

People generally commit standard sounds to memory and regard them as background noise, and do not pay much attention to them.

The brain wave readings revealed that babies whose mothers had gestational diabetes reacted more to the “standard” stimuli while babies whose mothers were healthy reacted more to the “oddball” stimuli.

The results were published in peer-reviewed scientific journal PlosOne in September.

In Singapore, gestational diabetes affects one in five pregnant women here–this is one of the highest rates in the world.

Dr Anne Rifkin-Graboi, senior author of the paper, noted that the babies who had mothers with gestational diabetes in the study were not exceptionally large – babies can become bigger than normal as a result of the condition – which likely meant their mothers had treatment to control their diabetes.

“But yet we still saw a subtle effect on the brain,” said Dr Rifkin-Graboi, who is head of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Neurodevelopment Research Centre.

“So maybe some of the risks from what is going on with the brain development is actually happening earlier than the second trimester, when the mothers are getting tested for gestational diabetes,” she said.

More studies need to be done to find out if a mother’s physiology at earlier stages of pregnancy affects brain development, and if so, perhaps testing and treatment should be done earlier, she pointed out.

Madam Himani Rajnikant Shah, 39, a participant of the Gusto project, said such findings will help future mothers to be more aware of their health and how it could affect their child, and make them more cautious about their lifestyles during pregnancy.

“I feel satisfied being part of the study as it makes me think about what is important for a child’s development, and I also feel that I am doing my bit for society by providing data for research that will benefit the next generation,” said the senior consultant at Credit Suisse bank.

Associate Professor Tan Lay Kok, from the Singapore General Hospital’s department of obstetrics and gynaecology, said the finding is interesting and gives credence to the policy of screening for gestational diabetes in all pregnant women.

Dr Bee Yong Mong, head of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Diabetes Centre, said: “The findings should prompt pregnant women to pay closer attention to their nutrition and physical activities during pregnancy to reduce their risk of developing gestational diabetes.”