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Stress In The Womb Reduces Brain Growth

; Buckinghamshire Vol. 7, Iss. 2,  (Jul 31, 1995): 16-17.
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Researchers in Copenhagen have shown that stress in pregnancy can reduce growth in the baby's head, and therefore brain size.(1) We know that stress in pregnancy can overall reduce growth, and increase the risk of premature birth. And nearly 20 years ago an unpleasant experiment on pregnant monkeys showed that stress to the mother reduced heart rate and blood pressure in the fetus, followed by lack of oxygen(2).The Copenhagen study is the first which has specifically looked at the effect of stress on the development of the brain in humans.

The original sample of over 2,000 women filled in questionnaires on their lives, including possible smoking and alcohol use.

Two years ago the first report was published, showing that stressed women had more very premature births.(3) The researchers then compared two groups in the study: 70 women who had suffered moderate or severe stress (e..g marital separation losing their job, divorce, death of husband, serious illness or rape) and 50 who had not been stressed.

There was an equal number of smokers in each. When they were a few days old, all the babies had detailed neurological tests -- and the doctors studying the babies did not know which had been born to mothers with stressful pregnancies.

Stress and smoking were associated with reduced birthweight. Each could cause the baby to lose one week's growth in the womb. However, even after allowing for the reduced growth, stress alone had a noticeable effect on head size. Smoking did not specifically affect head growth: stress did. Stress also affected neurological development. Stressed-in-the womb babies had lower scores. This study suggests that the brains of these babies had not achieved their full potential, and they may therefore not do so well in later life.

At first the...