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The prenatal effect of a mother's early trauma

Geoff Ferguson - November 18th 2015

News of a further study looking at possible prenatal pathways for the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

sad woman

A Californian study looked at placental-fetal stress physiology in 295 pregnant women, 43% of whom had experienced trauma as a child. The researchers were looking at levels of placental corticotropin-releasing hormone (pCRH). After week 19 of gestation the production of pCRH was about twice as high in women who had experienced childhood trauma, compared to those women who had not. In their analysis the researchers controlled for factors such as relevant sociodemographic factors, substance use, and depressive symptoms.

Raised levels of placental CRH have been associated with a range of later difficulties for the child. See, for example, this summary which describes a variety of related issues, including a greater likelihood of preterm delivery, altered growth patterns within the first two years of life and cortical thinning in 6-9 year olds. 

One possible pathway for this influence is that the mother's early trauma may predispose a stress reaction in her to later experiences. This reaction would in turn raise cortisol levels, stimulating the production of pCRH.

There is increasing interest in the direct effects that maternal mental health may have upon the child even before birth. A previous post on this blog referred to fetal brain changes associated with prenatal maternal depression. These studies underline the importance of adequate support for mothers and especially for those who are emotionally or psychologically vulnerable.

Thanks to NEJM Journal Watch 


Comments
Rachael Henry commented on 07-Dec-2015 09:33 PM
Thankyou for the blog and to NEJM Journal Watch. It would be helpful to know if raised pCRH of the order reported here (twice as high at 19 weeks) is clinically significant as well as statistically significant. It may be the case but statistical significance does not necessarily indicate something clinically significant. The summary and abstract do not address that (though it may be in the full report in the paper itself). I notice in the separate summary of other findings from UCI that one of the studies on raised pCRH postnatal impact (Howland et al on child self-reported internalising symptoms at age 5, in prep) was reporting child anomalies that were most marked in association with maternal levels that were 7 times as high as the lowest levels.

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Welcome to ourNews, where we keep up-to-date with research and other news related to infant mental health. These articles can be of interest to both parents and professionals.
We are keen to know your views and so please do comment on our articles.
Is there a topic that you would like us to write about? Just send us a message via 'Contact us'.

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