By: 20 January 2015
Iodine deficiency in pregnant women impairs embryonic brain development

(Vienna, 20th January 2014) Pregnant women in Austria commonly suffer from iodine deficiency. This may have a negative impact on the development of the brain of the unborn child. Below are the key findings from a joint study, conducted by the Endocrinology and Metabolism Unit at the University Department of Internal Medicine III, together with the University Department of Gynaecology at the MedUni Vienna and AGES, which have now been published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

During pregnancy, a lack of iodine is apparent in Austrian women after they begin taking the iodine preparations prescribed by their doctors.

“This leads to the conclusion that women need to take higher quantities of iodine if they are planning to become pregnant,” say Heidelinde Lindorfer and Alois Gessl, authors from the University Department of Internal Medicine III at the MedUni Vienna.

“Once they are pregnant, it is too late. By this point, iodine stocks are too low to be adequately topped up during pregnancy due to a rise in demand for iodine: approximately 50%.”

This invites the conclusion that an iodine deficiency was already present. Generally speaking, the Austrian population is already susceptible to a certain deficiency of this important trace element, say the scientists at the MedUni Vienna.

According to regulations, Austria has one of the lowest levels of salt iodination in the world. Levels vary from between 15 to 20 milligrams per kilogram of salt; over the years, this figure has fallen in Austria. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 20 to 40 milligrams per kilogram of salt.

Migrants have higher iodine levels

Urine measurements using mass spectrometry revealed higher concentrations of iodine in women with a migration background, regardless of the week of pregnancy and the presence of gestational diabetes.

“According to the WHO, every pregnant woman should take around 250 micrograms of iodine a day, and this should be continued until she stops breast feeding,” say the study authors. Iodine, which is primarily consumed via table salt, tends to be viewed negatively in some cases by the general population. Doctors also recommend reducing salt intake generally. “Before, during and after pregnancy, however, iodine is extremely important for embryonic brain development. Even a mild iodine deficiency can impair the child’s intellectual development; recent studies in the UK and Australia have shown that IQs are in fact reduced by a few points.”

The most extreme form of iodine deficiency presents itself in the form of a condition known as cretinism, which includes metabolic changes, deformities of the skeleton and under-activity of the thyroid gland. This condition has been eradicated in Austria, however.

Pregnant women in Austria are prevention skeptics

The overall interest in trace elements and vitamins during pregnancy needs to be improved among mothers-to-be (and their attending doctors), as the current study also shows: out of the 246 women interviewed in the diabetic outpatient clinic at the University Department of Internal Medicine III and the antenatal clinic at the MedUni Vienna’s University Department of Gynaecology, one third stated that they did not take any vitamins or supportive preparations such as folic acid, and of the remaining two-thirds, only fifty per cent took a preparation containing iodine. Say Lindorder and Gessl: “Most women are not adequately aware of the importance of iodine during pregnancy. But the health authorities need to play their part in this too.”

Five research clusters at the MedUni Vienna

A total of five research clusters have been set up at the MedUni Vienna, in which the MedUni Vienna is increasing its focus in the fields of fundamental and clinical research. The research clusters include medical imaging, cancer research/oncology, cardiovascular medicine, medical neurosciences and immunology. The present work falls in terms of its content within the remit of cardiovascular medicine.


European Journal of Clinical Nutrition “Iodine deficiency in pregnant women in Austria.” H. Lindorfer, M. Krebs. A. Kautzky-Willer, D. Bancher-Todesca, M. Sager, A. Gessl. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 10 December 2014, doi:10.1038/ejcn.2014.253.

Johannes Angerer 
Head of Communication and Public Relations
Medical University of Vienna
Tel.: 43 (0)1/ 40 160 11 501
Spitalgasse 23, 1090 Vienna

Medical University of Vienna –Summary profile

The Medical University of Vienna (MedUni Vienna) is one of Europe’s medical training and research facilities with the greatest history and tradition. Counting almost 7,500 students, it is today the largest medical training facility in the German-speaking region. With its 27 university departments and 3 clinical institutes, it also ranks amongst the most significant cutting-edge research institutions in Europe in the biomedical sector. Over 48,000 square metres of space have been dedicated to clinical research at the facility.