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Model of mechanism. Maternal stress causes a decrease of the barrier enzyme 11 ßHSD2 in the placenta. This allows more cortisol to pass through from the mother to the fetus and this in turn affects neurodevelopment. The arrows indicate cortisol
Researchers at Imperial College London are studying the effects of a pregnant woman's emotional state on her developing fetus.
"We are fascinated by what makes us who we are. The influence of genes and our environment on human development are well known," says Professor Vivette Glover of Imperial College. "It is now becoming clear our environment starts in the womb."
Research shows that there is an immediate link between maternal stress, or relaxation, and the fetal heart rate. The team has found that those children who were born to mothers who were stressed during pregnancy were more likely to suffer from anxiety, attention deficit/hyperactivity and conduct disorders. By monitoring antenatal maternal anxiety and life events, and testing ‘Toddler IQ’ and emotional reactivity, it was found that a mother’s emotional state could affect a child’s behaviour and learning ability.
"Our research is showing how a mother’s stress or anxiety levels during pregnancy can also be key in a child’s development, potentially doubling the risk for the child to have emotional and behavioural problems later in life," says Vivette. "Better emotional care of pregnant women should help prevent the development of neurodevelopmental problems in many children, having an important effect on the health of future generations."
Kieran O’Donnell gave a short talk on the research into the effect of a mother’s emotional trauma on the health, behaviour and learning of a baby - listen to it online, now.
Maternal stress game
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