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Study Suggests It's Wise to Consume Adequate Copper During Pregnancy

By Judy McBride
March 19, 1999

Getting enough copper during pregnancy may be important for the baby's brain development, according to an Agricultural Research Service study of newborn rat pups.

Slashing the mother rats' copper intake during pregnancy and nursing reduced the pups' brain levels of the enzyme PKC, important to development of the nervous system. The findings may have implications for people in the U.S. and other industrialized nations where copper intake is less than desirable. Between 1.5 and 3 milligrams of copper daily is currently suggested for all adults.

W. Thomas Johnson led the study at ARS' Grand Forks, N. Dak., Human Nutrition Research Center.

The brain has several enzymes that would suffer from a shortage of copper. Some need the mineral to function. Others, like PKC, don't contain copper but are less active in the absence of the mineral. Johnson and colleagues focused on PKC, measuring levels in the rat pups' brains after birth.

Throughout pregnancy and afterward, one group of mothers got only 1 microgram (mcg) of copper daily--one-sixth the level recommended for pregnant rats. The second group got 2 mcg, and a control group got all they needed.

PKC increased in all the pups' brains during the three weeks after birth. But compared to the control group, the increase was only about half as much in the group whose mothers got 1 mcg of copper.

Pups from the 2-mcg group also had a smaller increase--25 percent less overall, with one form of PKC lagging by 50 percent in the cerebellum, which controls motor function. This is significant, Johnson contends, because poor muscle coordination is a well-known symptom of copper deficiency in baby animals.

A story about the research appears in the March issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine. The story is also on the World Wide Web at:


ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific agency.

Scientific contact: W. Thomas Johnson, ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Grand Forks, N.D., phone (701) 795-8411, fax (701) 795-8395,