Prenatal stress linked to affective disorders in offspring

Individuals born to women who experience major stress during early pregnancy are at increased risk for developing affective disorders, study results suggest.

Karine Kleinhaus (New York University School of Medicine, USA) and team also found that the risk for mood disorders in offspring was greatest when the stressful event occurred in the third month of pregnancy.

"As many women continue to experience acute psychosocial traumas during pregnancy, it is necessary to understand the relationship between fetal exposure to this stress at certain points in gestation and the later risk of mood disorders as a first step in developing interventions to reduce negative effects of traumatic events on the subsequent generation," comment the researchers in Bipolar Disorders.

The team studied data on 90,079 individuals from the Jerusalem Perinatal Study who were born between 1964 and 1976 to mothers residing in West Jerusalem.

Using data from the Israeli national psychiatric registry, the researchers examined the link between gestational age during the Arab-Israeli ("Six Day") war of June 1967 and the incidence of mood disorders during a follow-up period of 33-41 years. Exposure to this war was used as a "presumed cause" of acute maternal stress.

They found that individuals who were in the first trimester of fetal development at the time of the war were significantly more likely to be admitted to hospital for any mood disorder (relative risk [RR]=3.01), bipolar disorder (RR=2.44), and "other" mood disorders (RR=3.61) than other individuals.

There was no significant increased risk for mood disorders among individuals who were in the second or third trimesters of fetal development at the time of the war.

Further analysis showed that the risk for any mood disorder, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders was particularly elevated among individuals who were in the third month of fetal development at the time of the war, at RRs of 5.54, 5.45, and 5.64, respectively.

Kleinhaus et al conclude: "Our work supports the hypothesis that an acutely stressful event occurring early in a woman's pregnancy might increase the incidence of mood disorders in her offspring."

They add: "Additional research on this topic is essential because of its implications for public health."

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