(Medical Xpress)—A panel of academics with members from several institutions in the U.S. has published a Comment piece in the journal Nature asking journalists to be more careful in how they portray the results of epigenetic studies. The panel, led by Sarah Richardson of Harvard University cite examples in their article of ways in which irresponsible journalism can lead to harassment and legal actions against women for behaviors during pregnancy that have not been proven to be harmful.
Epigenetics is the study of changes to DNA that are heritable and affect gene activity but not nucleotide sequence—in other words, it's looking into the impact of actions by pregnant women on not only their offspring, but generations of offspring. Such actions might include food eaten, living a stressful existence, exercising, using a particular type of shampoo, etc. In their paper the panel notes that epigenetics has been swept up into a new field of study—developmental origins of health and disease, or DOHaD, for short.
The panel isn't suggesting that studying the impact of mother's actions is a bad thing, their beef is with the way the results of such studies are being reported, e.g. with headlines meant to alarm, such as an article published recently by Discover, "Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes." The impact of such headlines leaves pregnant women in a vulnerable position, they suggest, marked for observation or worse criminal prosecution. They point to studies in the 70's, as an example, where researchers discovered the clear hazards of heavy drinking while pregnant leading to fetal alcohol syndrome. Coverage of the findings led to the widespread belief that any amount of alcohol consumed by a pregnant woman is harmful, and thus should not be allowed. But it's not true, the panelists note, recent studies suggest drinking responsibly while pregnant is not likely to cause any harm, yet if a pregnant woman today is seen sipping a glass of wine, she is likely to be judged adversely, reprimanded, or even prosecuted.
The panel concludes by requesting journalists follow four caveats: don't extrapolate findings on animal studies to people, point out when reporting that that there is a also a paternal role in epigenetics, remember that human reproduction and genetics are very complex and not nearly fully understood, and finally, try to keep in mind that sensationalizing scientific findings can have a very real impact on readers and society as a whole, leading to an adverse impact on pregnant women.
Society: Don't blame the mothers, Nature 512, 131–132 (14 August 2014) DOI: 10.1038/512131a