A German study has reported that mums-to-be facing unnecessary crises during their pregnancy may leave an emotional imprint on their unborn child.
The study asked 25 mothers whether they had suffered extreme stress due to physical abuse at the hands of their partners and then rated their levels of emotion. They then tracked the level of a certain gene in the mothers’ children aged nine to 19.
The gene is called the glucocorticoid receptor and is part of the brain’s response to stress. The German research team found the gene is far less active in children whose mothers were victims of domestic abuse while they were pregnant.
Helen Gunter, of the University of Konstanz, said: “It changes the way that people respond to stress and they may have a reduced ability to respond to stress.
“Past studies have shown that children who have abused parents are more prone to depression later in life.’ Dr Gunter, who reported the findings in the journal Translational Psychiatry, said the study looked only at the extreme stress caused by partner violence.
“We did not look at the everyday stresses of working or having a family,” she added. “This study is very specific to abuse.”
The study researchers pointed out that the findings relied on the mother’s memory, and don’t prove that violence toward mums causes changes to the foetus’s brain, just that a link exists.
Dr Carmine Pariante, of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London, said: “This paper confirms that the early foundation years start at minus nine months. We have known for some time that maternal stress and depression during pregnancy induce a unique response in the offspring, by affecting children’s behaviour well into adolescence and children’s ability to modulate their own stress response.
“This study shows that the glucocorticoid receptor, that is, the receptor for stress hormones, is subject to a key biological change that contributes to the organisation of this offspring response.
“This confirms that pregnancy is uniquely sensitive to a challenging maternal psychosocial environment – much more than, for example, after the baby is born.
“As we and others have been advocating, addressing maternal stress and depression in pregnancy is a clinically and socially important strategy.”