Maternal iron deficiency anemia, obesity, and diabetes are prevalent during pregnancy. All are associated with neonatal brain iron deficiency (ID) and neurodevelopmental impairment. Exosomes are extracellular vesicles involved in cell–cell communication. Contactin-2 (CNTN2), a neural-specific glycoprotein, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) are important in neurodevelopment and found in exosomes. We hypothesized that exosomal CNTN2 and BDNF identify infants at risk for brain ID. Umbilical cord blood samples were measured for iron status. Maternal anemia, diabetes, and body mass index (BMI) were recorded. Cord blood exosomes were isolated and validated for the exosomal marker CD81 and the neural-specific exosomal marker CNTN2. Exosomal CNTN2 and BDNF levels were quantified by ELISA. Analysis of CNTN2 and BDNF levels as predictors of cord blood iron indices showed a direct correlation between CNTN2 and ferritin in all neonates (n = 79, β = 1.75, p = 0.02). In contrast, BDNF levels inversely correlated with ferritin (β = −1.20, p = 0.03), with stronger association in female neonates (n = 37, β = −1.35, p = 0.06), although there is no evidence of a sex-specific effect. Analysis of maternal risk factors for neonatal brain ID as predictors of exosomal CNTN2 and BDNF levels showed sex-specific relationships between infants of diabetic mothers (IDMs) and CNTN2 levels (Interaction p = 0.0005). While male IDMs exhibited a negative correlation (n = 42, β = −0.69, p = 0.02), female IDMs showed a positive correlation (n = 37, β = 0.92, p = 0.01) with CNTN2. A negative correlation between BNDF and maternal BMI was found with stronger association in female neonates (per 10 units BMI, β = −0.60, p = 0.04). These findings suggest CNTN2 and BNDF are respective molecular markers for male and female neonates at risk for brain ID. This study supports the potential of exosomal markers to assess neonatal brain status in at-risk infants.
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