Stress in the womb can last a lifetime, say researchers behind new exhibit

June 29, 2009

Visitors can see how their stress levels could affect the heart rate of their unborn baby and find out why pregnant women should reduce their anxiety, at a new exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, which opens today (30 June 2009).

The researchers behind the exhibit, from Imperial College London, hope that it will raise families' awareness of the importance of reducing levels of stress and anxiety in expectant mothers. They say that reducing stress during pregnancy could help prevent thousands of children from developing emotional and behavioural problems.

Visitors to the Exhibition will have the chance to play a game that shows how a mother's stress can increase the heart rate of her unborn baby. They will also be able to touch a real placenta, encased safely in plastic. The placenta is crucial for fetal development and it usually protects the unborn baby from the stress hormone cortisol. However, when the mother is stressed, the placenta becomes less protective and the mother's cortisol may have an effect on the fetus.

The Imperial researchers' work has shown that maternal stress and anxiety can alter the development of the baby's brain. This in turn can result in a greater risk of emotional problems such as anxiety or depression, behavioural problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and being considerably slower at learning. Some studies have even suggested that it may increase the likelihood of later violent or criminal behaviour. Their findings have suggested that the effects of stress during pregnancy can last many years, including into adolescence.

Professor Vivette Glover, the lead researcher behind the exhibit from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London, said: "We all know that if a mother smokes or drinks a lot of alcohol while pregnant it can affect her fetus. Our work has shown that other more subtle factors, such as her emotional state, can also have long-term effects on her child. We hope our exhibit will demonstrate in a fun way why we all need to look after expectant mothers' emotional wellbeing.

"Our research shows that stress due to the mother's relationship with her partner can be particularly damaging. We want fathers visiting our exhibit to see how they can help with the development of their child even before the birth, by helping their partner to stay happy," added Professor Glover.

The researchers say that the stress hormone cortisol may be one way in which the fetus is affected by the mother's anxiety during pregnancy. Usually the placenta protects the unborn baby from the mother's cortisol, by producing an enzyme that breaks the hormone down. When the mother is very stressed, this enzyme works less well and lets her cortisol through the placenta. By studying the amount of cortisol in the amniotic fluid, the Imperial researchers' latest study suggests that the higher the level of cortisol in the womb, the lower the toddler's cognitive development or "baby IQ" at 18 months.

Kieran O'Donnell from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London said: "We are very excited to have this opportunity to talk with the public about our work. We think that by promoting awareness of this subject we may be able to benefit many families in the future."
-end-
The scientists will be on hand at the exhibition, which runs from 30 June to 4 July.

Imperial College London

Related Stress Articles from Brightsurf:

Stress-free gel
Researchers at The University of Tokyo studied a new mechanism of gelation using colloidal particles.

Early life stress is associated with youth-onset depression for some types of stress but not others
Examining the association between eight different types of early life stress (ELS) and youth-onset depression, a study in JAACAP, published by Elsevier, reports that individuals exposed to ELS were more likely to develop a major depressive disorder (MDD) in childhood or adolescence than individuals who had not been exposed to ELS.

Red light for stress
Researchers from the Institute of Industrial Science at The University of Tokyo have created a biphasic luminescent material that changes color when exposed to mechanical stress.

How do our cells respond to stress?
Molecular biologists reverse-engineer a complex cellular structure that is associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS

How stress remodels the brain
Stress restructures the brain by halting the production of crucial ion channel proteins, according to research in mice recently published in JNeurosci.

Why stress doesn't always cause depression
Rats susceptible to anhedonia, a core symptom of depression, possess more serotonin neurons after being exposed to chronic stress, but the effect can be reversed through amygdala activation, according to new research in JNeurosci.

How plants handle stress
Plants get stressed too. Drought or too much salt disrupt their physiology.

Stress in the powerhouse of the cell
University of Freiburg researchers discover a new principle -- how cells protect themselves from mitochondrial defects.

Measuring stress around cells
Tissues and organs in the human body are shaped through forces generated by cells, that push and pull, to ''sculpt'' biological structures.

Cellular stress at the movies
For the first time, biological imaging experts have used a custom fluorescence microscope and a novel antibody tagging tool to watch living cells undergoing stress.

Read More: Stress News and Stress Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.