Boston, Massachusetts (PressExposure) October 22, 2009 -- Stress that occurs during pregnancy is known to affect a mother's physiology, which can in turn affect the fetus' developing biological systems. In a novel study looking at stressors that have occurred throughout the mother's lifetime, rather than only during pregnancy, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) and the Harvard School of Public Health found that interpersonal trauma experienced throughout the mother's life may have an effect on her baby's immune development during gestation. These findings are published online in the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology.
"A previous link has been established between psychological stress and allergies and asthma," said senior study author Rosalind J. Wright, MD, MPH, of the Channing Laboratory and the Department of Medicine at BWH. In this ongoing study researchers are looking at how stress occurring at various stages of a woman's life influences gestational development and ultimately the development of allergies and asthma in her child.
A group of 478 inner-city pregnant women aged 18 years or older were recruited from hospitals in the Boston area to participate in the study. Women were asked to answer whether they experienced interpersonal trauma at various stages of their life, including childhood or teenage years, adulthood or pregnancy, or chronically during both periods. Interpersonal trauma was defined as being pushed, grabbed, shoved, kicked, bit, punched, hit with something that hurt their body, choked, burned, forced to have sexual activities or physically attacked in some other way.
Venous placental cord blood collected from the children of the study participants at birth was analyzed for immunoglobulin E (IgE) levels. IgE, a class of antibody that plays an important role in allergy, is typically found in low levels in blood serum, but when found in high levels can be an early indicator of immune system shift toward allergic sensitization. Researchers found high levels of IgE in the cord blood of children whose mothers experienced intrapersonal trauma early in life and especially in those children whose mother experienced chronic interpersonal trauma over multiple life stages.
"This study has shown that, when examining prenatal stress and childhood risk for allergic sensitization or asthma, researchers should also consider certain stressors experienced by mothers before the pregnancy, even remote childhood stress, which may have lasting impact" said Michelle J. Sternthal, PhD, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Linking interpersonal violence in women's lives to not only her own health and wellbeing but to the health of the next generation further underscores the need to prevent such trauma," emphasized Dr. Wright.