January 28, 2007

Stress Harms Baby's Brain While in Womb

Research has, over the past years, suggested that significant stress (or long term moderate stress) during pregnancy increases the risk of schizophrenia in children (see here). This week new research further supports the theory that children whose mothers were stressed out during pregnancy are vulnerable to mental and behavioral problems. The BBC Reports that:

The Latest UK research by Professor Vivette Glover of Imperial College London found stress caused by verbal arguments with, or violence by, a husband or partner was particularly damaging.

Experts blame high levels of the stress hormone cortisol crossing the placenta.

Professor Glover found high cortisol in the amniotic fluid bathing the baby in the womb tallied [was correlated] with the damage. The babies exposed to the highest levels of cortisol during their development had lower IQs at 18 months.

Maternal stress seems to impact the dopamine production in the brain, for example, prenatal stress is known to double the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Moreover, the story notes "We found that if the woman had a partner who was being emotionally cruel to them while they were pregnant it had a really significant effect on their baby's future development."

Read the Full Story: Stress harms brain in the womb

In related writings, Mindhacks talks about how the idea that motherly stress could affect the unborn child's chance of developing mental illness has been around for a long time.

"One of the earliest reports on this was a research paper from 1978 who looked at mothers affected by the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, later to become known as the Winter War.

Researchers tracked down mothers who were pregnant when their partners were killed in the conflict, and compared them to mothers who were also pregnant at the time of the war, but whose partners were not killed in the fighting.

They found that children born to mothers whose partners were killed were more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life than the children born to mothers with partners who survived, suggesting that the stress of grief affected the child's neurodevelopment.

This is thought to be due, at least in part, to the effect of stress-related hormone cortisol from the mother affecting the development of the foetus' nervous system.

Interestingly, a similar increase in cases has also been found for children born to women who lived through physically and psychologically stressful famines - one in China and one in Holland."

Related Reading:

The Impact of Stress on the Brain, and Schizophrenia

High IQ Helps Fight Mental Illness

Is It Psychological Or Biological?

Stress, Dopamine and Unusual Experiences in Everyday Life

Schizophrenia and Stress

Anxiety during pregnancy affects child behavior

Stress Hormones and Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia Risks During Pregnancy

Related Research Papers:

Antenatal maternal anxiety and stress and the neurobehavioural development of the fetus and child: links and possible mechanisms. A review.

Prenatal mood disturbance predicts sleep problems in infancy and toddlerhood.

Prenatal anxiety predicts individual differences in cortisol in pre-adolescent children.

Maternal antenatal anxiety and children's behavioural/emotional problems at 4 years. Report from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.


There is a video there as well (see: The kind of stress which could cause damage), showing how the babies IQ is lowered when the mother experience severe and extreme stress, and again, it was "stressed" that normal stress is NOT what they are talking about.

In fact, they also linked to an article saying that even moderate stress may be beneficial to the baby (see: Stress may be good for the unborn).


Posted by: Naomi at January 29, 2007 08:44 AM

Hi Naomi,

I think that for families without genes and/or biology that predispose them towards schizophrenia you are right about the "extremely high levels of stress and distress" - but for people who do have the biological predisposition/risk factors - the evidence seems to indicate that it doesn't take "extremely high" levels of stress to further increase risk of schizophrenia. Rather - for those who are biologically at risk for schizophrenia - simply "high" levels of stress - may significantly increase risk of schizophrenia. Also - in the story they say that people who experience stress caused by arguments with a partner was particularly damaging - and by most people's judgments that probably isn't "extreme" - so I think people might be careful about jumping to a conclusion that their home life is not stressful for a pregnant woman.

Also, I think we have to be careful about a simple definition of what is "normal stress". For example - a person who (for example) grows up in a highly dysfunctional family, or who goes through the stress of a messy family divorce while young, who has poor social skills or anxiety challenges, who grows up in a family that is of high anxiety, or grow up in a family that already has a mental illness in it - may believe that their stress level is "normal" - when in fact it may be significantly higher than normal to begin with. So that when that person becomes pregnant they may think they have a "normal" level of stress - but it is actually very high.

It seems that perhaps Cortisol tests might help identify women who are experiencing high levels of stress - as an objective measure of the situation.

It seems that people who have a family history of schizophrenia or other mental illness would want to be extra careful to have a pregnancy in a low stress environment - and make an extra effort to have the pregnant woman enjoy a low stress pregnancy, because of the research that suggests that those with a history of mental illness in their family are more sensitive to stress.

Just as a sidenote, I've talked with a lot of people who have visited the site and the high levels of stress are relatively common during pregnancy from what I've seen. For example one person has talked about how their parents (from the USA) were traveling around Europe during the mother's pregnancy - with the father gone for long periods of time (leaving the mother alone in a strange foreign environment with no emotional support for many weeks at a time). The child of this couple later developed schizophrenia. I'm not saying that this higher level of stress would be THE cause of the schizophrenia - but the research does support the idea that it could be a factor.

With regard to "Moderate Stress" - absolutely, there is significant research to suggest that it is good for the mother and future child. For example, regular exercise is a type of moderate stress that is generally recommended to mothers during the first two trimesters.

Posted by: szadmin at January 29, 2007 09:07 AM

You have brought up a couple good points, one of course is that what is perceived as "normal stress" varies by the individual.

The other is about the end-result of schizophrenia. This article did not study whether the child grew up to have a major brain disorder such as schizophrenia, but rather, the problems in early childhood with lowered IQ, and impulse and behavioural problems. But other retrospective studies have been done, showing that "major stressors" at a certain time in pregnancy did statistically increase schizophrenia later in life.

I am quite happy to have fathers and family get involved with protecting pregnant mothers from undue stress. I would even be happy to see some successful lawsuits against mean, vindictive bosses who unduly stress out pregnant women who have a child with below-average IQ. (I am not being facetious - I mean it!)

I honestly do think the pendulum has swung too far in some countries from being "overly protective" (restrictive which can be stressful as well!) of pregnant women to being way too unprotective. And in some countries, pregnant women are still starving and experience horrific traumas... Iraq and areas in Africa among others, comes to mind. This is very sad.

I am grateful for the my wonderful protective life & supportive spouse & family, great job and managers I had (although it didn't save my kids from MI) - and I know that my life & position in life was just LUCK - women around the world are suffering and the next generation is paying for it. That puts (or SHOULD put) the burden of responsibility on their entire country.


Posted by: Naomi at January 29, 2007 09:41 AM

Interesting. My older brother developed this in his teenage years. Looking back, before he was born and in my mother's womb at 7 months his father died. This had to be so stressful for my mother. It makes you wonder. What month is the brain developed and does the baby feel the sorrow and pain of the mother.

Posted by: j doorn at January 30, 2007 01:08 PM

Mental illness studies of childhood factors generally exclude schizophrenia.
Referring to MI does not mean authors are referring to a disorder remotely similar to schizophrenia.

Posted by: Dr.Vic at February 7, 2007 03:28 PM

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