Saturday, July 25, 2009

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

The logic below is far from unassailable. What they have is a correlation between cortisol in the amniotic fluid and baby IQ. Maybe (for instance) the cortisol level is dispositional rather than situational -- in which case maybe there is some genetic link between neuroticism and IQ

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.

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."


Factors behind marriage breakdown

Opposites attract or so the saying goes. But a new study suggests this may not be the key to a long-lasting marriage. Academics from the Australian National University tracked the relationships and characteristics of nearly 2500 couples between 2001 and 2007. They found the factors that increased the likelihood of marriage breakdown included differences in age, desire for children, work, alcohol and smoking.

Divorce was twice as likely for couples in which the husband was nine or more years older than his wife.

And the same risk applied in marriages in which the man was two or more years younger than his wife.

Couples were twice as likely to split if the wife had a much stronger preference for children or for more of them.

Smoking and drinking rates also contributed to relationship breakdown.

Relationships in which one person smoked and the other did not were between 75 and 90 per cent more likely to end than those of non-smoking couples.

It was a similar story if the wife was a heavier drinker than her husband.

People whose parents were divorced were more likely to call it quits, so too were those who had children born before the marriage.

Couples in which both people had been previously married had a 90 per cent higher chance of splitting than those marrying for the first time.

Unemployment and or perceived financial stress of the husband, but not the wife, also played a role.

Factors that were not important included country of birth, religious background and education levels. [Most surprising]

As well as the number and age of children, a woman's employment status and years in paid employment did not play a role.

The "What's love got to do with it?" study estimates that a quarter of relationships will end within six years and 50 per cent by 25 years.

Dr Rebecca Kippen, Professor Bruce Chapman and Dr Peng Yu will present their findings at a Melbourne conference this week.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had to comment on this. Agendas are rarely as easy to spot as this- Couples where one partner smokes are more likely to split than non-smoking couples-
What happened to couples who both smoke? No data? Not worth mentioning? We thought smoking was an important factor, but only on our terms.