In war zones, stress changes babies before they’re born

"War and conflict do not just impact the health and well-being for people who experience it directly," says Darlene A. Kertes. "It can potentially have long-term consequences for future generations." (Credit: Oxfam International/Flickr)

Children from war-torn areas of the globe are affected by trauma even before they are born.

Researchers went to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a region routinely called “the worst place in the world” to be a woman, says Darlene A. Kertes, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida.

Women in the region are routinely the target of rape and other war-related traumas, Kertes says. “Our research shows that stressful life experiences affect our bodies all the way down to our genes.”

The findings, published in the journal Child Development, link a mother’s stressful life experiences with epigenetic markers in key genes that regulate the body’s response to stress, in both mothers and newborns.

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“The study is one of the first of its kind to be conducted in a developing country,” Kertes says. “Most information to date about effects of stress and trauma on prenatal development has been gathered in a Western context.”

Samples of umbilical cord blood, placenta, and the mothers’ blood were collected at birth and tested for impacts of war trauma and chronic stress. The researchers looked at DNA methylation, an epigenetic process that makes genes more or less able to respond to biochemical signals in the body.

During pregnancy, a mother’s bodily responses to stress are passed onto the fetus, affecting a child’s brain development, birth weight, and functioning of the children’s own HPA axis even after they are born.

The researchers looked at the babies’ birth weight as an indicator of children’s overall development. They found that stress-linked DNA methylation differences predicted lower birth weight.

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“The stress exposure affected the maternal and fetal tissues differently, which shows that the impact of stress differs depending on an individual’s life phase,” Kertes says, adding that stress experienced at very young ages affects the way the body responds to stress throughout life.

This is the first time researchers have documented stress effects, either pre- or postnatal, on methylation of a gene called CRH in humans. CRH makes a hormone that triggers the body’s stress response.  The study also confirmed stress effects on several other genes known to be involved in the stress response.

Kertes and colleagues have started to examine the longer term effects of stress on child development in conflict-ridden regions. She emphasizes that traumatic events can also have cross-generational impacts.

“War and conflict do not just impact the health and well-being for people who experience it directly,” she says. “It can potentially have long-term consequences for future generations.”

Source: University of Florida