What happened to “Charlie” started in his mother’s womb

Beginbeforebirth.org was put together by researchers from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London. It posted the latest research on how a mother’s stress, caused by everything from domestic violence to natural disaster, affects what happens to the fetus developing in her womb.

The organization produced a series of games and videos, including Charlie’s Story, that look at a mother’s stress, how genes can be turned on and off depending on what’s happening in the mother’s social environment, and what the long-term consequences can be.

The site has a good section on epigenetics. You think the DNA you’re born with is your blueprint for life? Not quite. Your genes can be turned on and off, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently by what’s happening in your relationships. Getting a lot of verbal abuse and physical abuse from mom or dad? That’s setting off a flood of toxic stress hormones that are changing your DNA. And if the abuse is severe enough, you can pass the changes on to your children.

The early emotional environment can lead to long lasting epigenetic changes in the brain. One of the first examples of this came from animal studies of maternal care. Rats pups who were licked and groomed a lot by their mother, showed reduced anxiety and lower stress responses in adulthood. These effects were due to epigenetic changes within the brain of the offspring, specifically at the receptor for the stress hormone cortisol (Weaver and Colleagues, 2004 ).

But pups that didn’t receive the best and most appropriate rat parenting ended up with toxic levels of stress hormones, high anxiety, and didn’t lick and groom their own pups appropriately.

Similar epigenetic modifications of the cortisol receptor were identified in the brain of rat fetuses whose mothers were exposed to prenatal stress during pregnancy see Mueller and Bale, 2008.

So, not only did “Charlie” absorb stress from his mother while he was in the womb, those experiences before birth put him on the road to a hard life that his family didn’t make any easier for him. According to the limited information about “Charlie”, we know that he developed an ACE score of at least 4 (depressed mother, physically abusive father, father abandoned family, neglect) before he was in school. That put him at high risk for chronic disease, mental illness, and violence, among other consequences.

The good news, as the site points out, is that early intervention is available that can prevent stress in families, protect fetuses, and teach parents who weren’t “licked and groomed” appropriately when they were children how to be healthy parents and provide children with the comfort, love, attention and support that they need to develop healthy brains and bodies. The researchers cite the success of Nurse Family Partnership in the U.S., which in Britain is called the Family Nurse Partnership.

Beginbeforebirth.org is an informational site for mothers, students and health professionals; it looks as if the latest information was posted a year ago. It’s the type of site that begs for a blog with the latest research and policy and an active community. Too bad there’s no ongoing information.

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