TUESDAY, July 19 (HealthDay News) -- A new study provides
evidence that stress from domestic violence during pregnancy may
make offspring more prone to stress as an adult.
However, the research doesn't directly prove a cause-and-effect
It may be difficult to ever prove that stress affecting the
bodies of stressed-out pregnant mothers disrupts the inner
chemistry of their children. The study does point to the importance
of a low-stress pregnancy, however.
"Healthy development starts in the womb, and it is not only nutritional," said study co-author Axel Meyer, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Konstanz in Germany. "Behavioral and emotional factors are important, and the effects are long-lasting."
In recent years, scientists have tried to understand how stress
during pregnancy affects the fetus, possibly by altering genes.
Research has suggested that anxious and stressed mothers are more
likely to have children who develop attention and behavior problems
and other issues, said Thomas G. O'Connor, director of the Wynne
Center for Family Research at the University of Rochester Medical
Center in new York.
It's challenging to figure out whether there's a direct link
because many factors other than maternal stress -- such as the
environment in which a child is raised -- could explain why kids
turn out the way they do.
In science, the gold standard of research is to randomly assign
groups of subjects to undergo different treatments or experiences
and watch what happens to them. But it would be unethical to expose
pregnant mothers to stress. So, researchers examine the effects of
stress on pregnant animals, or they try to look backwards to find
women who were stressed while pregnant and examine how it may have
affected their offspring.
In this study, researchers looked at the genes of women and
their children that are thought to be connected to stress.
They found that genetically, mothers stressed by domestic
violence appear to "program their offspring to respond in a more
costly way when exposed to stressors," Meyer said. The genes in the
women themselves weren't affected by exposure to domestic
Meyer said the ongoing stress of the domestic relationships may
have been the key problem for the women. "Data from many studies
suggest that stressors need not be physical," he said. "Emotional
neglect, ongoing familial conflict and other severe forms of
adversity may also take their toll."
Could something in the women that makes them more likely to
become victims of domestic violence be passed down to their
children? Probably not. The researchers linked domestic violence
during pregnancy to genetic differences in their children, but they
didn't find a link to mothers who experienced domestic violence
How is the research helpful? "If it really were the case that
stress in pregnancy did have persistent effects, then we should
invest a great deal more effort and resources in trying to improve
well-being in pregnancy," said O'Connor. "It would presumably be
cost-effective because you're preventing something from
The study appears in the July 19 issue of
For more about pregnancy, try the
U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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