Stress during pregnancy is harmful to offspring

bout 12 years ago, Quebec in Canada experienced an ice storm. A number of communities suffered power failure for a week or more. This event gave medical researchers a good chance to study the effects of stress during pregnancy. They studied two groups: The experimental group was composed of pregnant mothers who were in areas without electricity, and the control group, pregnant mothers in areas with power supply.

The Quebec researchers followed up on the children up to five years and older. They found that the children whose mothers were in the experimental group were delayed in language development and had cognitive difficulties. They also found that the severity of the stress during pregnancy was directly related to the severity of the language delay and cognitive problems. The more stress during pregnancy, the more brain problems.

There is scientific reason to explain the effect of stress during pregnancy. Studies in both animals and humans show that when the mother is stressed during pregnancy, the level of cortisol, the stress hormone, goes up in her blood. Cortisol then goes through the placenta, then to the fetal circulation. When stress occurs during the 15th week of gestation, more of the corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) in the placenta is produced 31 weeks later. Both cortisol and CRH have damaging effects on the fetal brain.

In animal studies, an elevated maternal cortisol level leads to deficits in learning and memory, long-lasting delays in neuromotor development, and distractibility in the offspring.

The brain is the largest functional organ during fetal development. I think prolonged exposure of the fetal brain to an increased level of cortisol is equivalent to posttraumatic stress disorder in adults, and leads to the signs and symptoms of autism, ADHD and other chronic mental problems in children.
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