About 10 to 20 percent of piglets do not survive to weaning, and 5 to 10 percent are stillborn. Unlocking the effects of myelin production, an important aspect of brain development, in piglets may be one of the keys to their survival.
USDA scientists are investigating myelin production, called "myelination," which is essential for proper functioning of the nervous system and affects coordination and reflex speed. A team led by Jeffrey Vallet, a physiologist and research leader of the Reproduction Research Unit at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., is examining myelination's role in helping newborn piglets move quickly and easily to avoid being accidentally crushed by their mother, a primary cause of piglet preweaning mortality.
Scientists compared myelin content from the cerebellum, brain stem and spinal cord, which are involved in coordination and reflexes, between the largest and smallest pig fetuses during a sow's late pregnancy. They found no differences in spinal cord myelination, which develops first, between the two groups. However, significantly less myelin was found in the brain stem and cerebellum of smaller pig fetuses.
In another study, Vallet and his colleagues investigated the effects of the dietary supplement creatine, which plays a role in energy metabolism. They looked at energy metabolism and myelination in piglets. Feeding creatine to pregnant sows did not affect the birth process—the amount of time between piglets' births, number of stillbirths and preweaning mortality. However, the number of low-birth-weight piglets crushed by their mothers that received creatine was reduced.
Overall, these studies suggest that reduced myelin may contribute to poor survival of low-birth-weight piglets, and that improved myelination may help the piglet's ability to avoid the sow when necessary, according to Vallet.
ARS is USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency, and the research supports the USDA priority of promoting international food security.
Read more about this research in the February 2014 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.