Prenatal stress could enhance protective mechanisms of babies

May 13, 2016

Maternal stress and depression during pregnancy may activate certain protective mechanisms in babies. Psychologists from the University of Basel together with international colleagues report that certain epigenetic adaptations in newborns suggest this conclusion. Their results have been published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

In their study, the researchers observed that increased concentrations of hormones, depressive symptoms and general adversities during pregnancy were accompanied by epigenetic changes in the child. As a result of these changes the oxytocin receptor gene, which is important for and stress adaptations, is activated more easily. This mechanism could indicate that in these cases, the babies adapt to develop more resilience to cope with future challenges and adversities.

Switch reprogrammed

Whether a gene can be activated or not also depends on methyl groups that attach to the DNA and function as a switch. The researchers found that children from mothers with increased and show a reduced methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene at birth. This results in the gene becoming more easily activated, which leads to a facilitated production of oxytocin receptors for oxytocin to react with and unfold its effects. Oxytocin not only has an important function in mother-child bonding and in induction of labor and lactation, it also influences social behavior.

For their study, the team of Prof. Gunther Meinlschmidt from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Basel examined 100 mothers and their babies during and after pregnancy. They collected umbilical cord blood from 39 newborns and assessed the in saliva samples of the mothers. In addition, the researchers evaluated stressful life events and mental health of the mothers via questionnaires. Since the data were only analyzed up to the newborn phase, no conclusions were drawn with regard to the long-term consequences that the epigenetic programming of oxytocin receptors might have for the children.

Resilience research only at the beginning

Researchers from the University of Basel, Ruhr University Bochum, Exeter University, McGill University Montreal, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, University of Trier, Zurich University of Applied Sciences and the Stress Center Trier were involved in this study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Previous studies have shown, that adversities during pregnancy can increase the risk for mental disorders and physical diseases in the mother's offspring. However, science has so far dedicated much less attention to potential protective mechanisms of the child.

"Resilience research in this area is only at the beginning," explains Meinlschmidt. The observations made provide first evidence that an adverse environment during pregnancy could also activate protective mechanisms. "We need a comprehensive understanding of the psychological processes that allow humans to sustain long-term health even over generations despite adversities," says Meinlschmidt. Based on this knowledge, resilience processes could be promoted in order to try preventing the development of mental disorders and physical illnesses.

Explore further: Oxytocin level in pregnancy predicts postpartum depression severity

More information: Eva Unternaehrer et al. Maternal Adversities during Pregnancy and Cord Blood Oxytocin Receptor (OXTR) DNA Methylation, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2016). DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsw051

Related Stories

Oxytocin level in pregnancy predicts postpartum depression severity

March 23, 2016
Higher oxytocin levels in the third trimester of pregnancy predicts the severity of postpartum depression symptoms in women who previously suffered from depression, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.

Acute stress alters control of gene activity

August 15, 2012
Acute stress alters the methylation of the DNA and thus the activity of certain genes. This is reported by researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum together with colleagues from Basel, Trier and London for the first ...

Postnatal depression linked to challenges in parenting—could Oxytocin be helpful?

January 8, 2016
Caring for an infant is challenging for any mother—but especially so for women with postnatal depression, which may lead to adverse effects on child outcomes. Current evidence on postnatal depression and parenting—including ...

Study finds smoking during pregnancy alters newborn stress hormones and DNA

October 17, 2014
Researchers from The Miriam Hospital have studied the effects of smoking during pregnancy and its impact on the stress response in newborn babies. Their research indicates that newborns of mothers who smoke cigarettes during ...

Researchers uncover blood markers to identify women at risk for postpartum depression

July 27, 2015
Postpartum depression is a debilitating disorder that affects nearly 20 percent of new mothers, putting their infants at increased risk for poor behavioral, cognitive and social development.

Recommended for you

Self-harm, suicide attempts climb among US girls, study says

November 21, 2017
Attempted suicides, drug overdoses, cutting and other types of self-injury have increased substantially in U.S. girls, a 15-year study of emergency room visits found.

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

Non-fearful social withdrawal linked positively to creativity

November 20, 2017
Everyone needs an occasional break from the social ramble, though spending too much time alone can be unhealthy and there is growing evidence that the psychosocial effects of too much solitude can last a lifetime.

Cultural values can be a strong predictor of alcohol consumption

November 20, 2017
Countries with populations that value autonomy and harmony tend to have higher average levels of alcohol consumption than countries with more traditional values, such as hierarchy and being part of a collective. This new ...

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.