Kathleen M. Gustafson, Ph.D.

Research Associate Professor, Department of Neurology
Director, Fetal Biomagnetometry Laboratory
Hoglund Brain Imaging Center

Ph.D., 1994


Since the 1980's, there has been increasing recognition that events that occur in utero have long-term implications for future health. Maternal nutrition, physical activity, psychological stress and social disparities have the potential to put the fetus at risk or "program" the offspring for obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Our research is focused on the developmental origins of health and disease. To accomplish these studies, we use a dedicated fetal biomagnetometer to measure naturally occurring magnetic fields that surround bioelectric currents in the maternal and fetal bodies. There are only two dedicated fetal biomagnetometers in the United States. This device is housed at the Hoglund Brain Imaging Center on the Kansas University Medical Center campus. It allows for completely safe, non-invasive studies of women during their pregnancy.

Of principle importance to our research is the magnetocardiogram (MCG), recorded simultaneously from mother and child. Using the MCG, we are able to determine fetal behavioral states and fetal movements including non-nutritive sucking and swallowing, hiccups and periodic fetal breathing. During these unique fetal activities, we have shown how the fetus regulates its heart rate and heart rate variability and how these activities differ when women exercise during pregnancy or take an omega-3 supplement. We now know that when women exercise during pregnancy, their fetus has greater ability to vary its heart rate which may give it an adaptive advantage. Development and maturation of fetal cardiac autonomic control not only gives us insight into cardiac regulation, but also brain development. The autonomic nervous system, in particular vagal regulation, has also been linked to basic cognitive components related to arousal and attention. We believe we have a unique opportunity to make significant contributions to the field of developmental origins.

Selected Publications

May, L.E., Knowlton, J., Hanson, J., Suminski, R.R., Paynter, C., Fang, X., Gustafson, K. (2016) Effects of Exercise During Pregnancy on Maternal Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability. PM&R; 8:000-000. doi: 10.1016/j.pmrj.2015.11.006.

May, L.E., Allen, J.J.B., Gustafson, K.M. (2016) Fetal and maternal cardiac responses to physical activity and exercise during pregnancy. Early Human Development, http://ds.doi.org/10/1016/j.earlhumdev.2016-01-005.

Van Leeuwen, P., Gustafson, K.M., Cysarz, D. Geue, D. May, L.E., Grönemeyer, D. (2014) Aerobic exercise during pregnancy and presence of fetal-maternal heart synchronization. PLOS One. Aug27;9(8):e106036.

May, L.E., Suminski, R. R., Berry, A., Langaker, M.D., Gustafson, K.M. (2014) Maternal physical activity mode and fetal heart outcome. Early Human Development. 90; 365-369 .

May, L.E., Scholtz, S.A., Suminski, R.R., Gustafson, K.M. (2014) Aerobic exercise during pregnancy influences infant heart rate variability at one month of age. Early Human Development. 90; 33-38.

Carlson, S.E., Colombo, J., Gajewski, B.J., Gustafson, K.M., Mundy, D., Yeast, J. Georgieff, M.K., Markley, L.A., Kerling, E.H., Shaddy, D.J. (2013) Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation and pregnancy outcomes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 97;808-815.

Gustafson, K.M., Carlson, S.E., Colombo, J., Yeh, H-W., Shaddy, D.J., Li, S. (2013) Effects of docosahexaenoic acid supplementation during pregnancy on fetal heart rate and variability: A randomized clinical trial. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 88; 331-338.

Colombo, J., Carlson, S.E., Cheatham, C.L., Shaddy, D.J., Kerling, E., Thodosoff, J., Gustafson, K.M., Brez, C.N. (2013). Long-term effects of LCPUFA supplementation on childhood cognitive outcomes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (epub ahead of print)

Gustafson, K. M., May, L. E., Yeh, H-W., Million, S. K., Allen, J. J. B., (2012) The influence of maternal exercise on fetal cardiac autonomic control during breathing movements. Early Human Development. 88; 539-546.



Last modified: Apr 21, 2016


Kathleen M. Gustafson, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor, Department of Neurology
Director, Fetal Biomagnetometry Laboratory