Why is my friend faking her pregnancy?

Like the pregnant woman, like the children

Like father like son, they say. It would be better: like the pregnant woman, like her child. Because what an expectant mother eats, how stressed and anxious she feels, is imprinted on her baby's genes and brain - and affects it throughout her life.

Scientific supervision: Prof. Dr. Mark Hubener

Published: 03/24/2016

Level: medium

  • Influences in the womb already shape the unborn child, sometimes for a lifetime.
  • The mother's stress leads to the fact that her child is stressed faster and often, but also performs comparatively well under stress.
  • One of the latest hypotheses is that prenatal stress could cause mental decline in old age.
  • Anxious pregnant women tend to have cautious babies who recognize danger at lightning speed. In a safe environment, however, this can be inconvenient.
  • The diet during the ten months influences how quickly a child will eat their fill and presumably also whether they are more susceptible to addictions.
Alcohol During Pregnancy

"Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders" are all alcohol-related damage to the development of the baby in the womb. Alcohol is toxic to the child and passes the placenta unhindered, which is why even small amounts can cause permanent damage. Disturbed growth, damage to hearing, the visual system and the heart, for example, can be the consequences. In January 2016, the Canadian Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario listed 428 individual developmental deficits caused by alcohol. Lana Popova, the lead author of the Lancet review, emphasizes that there is no amount or phase in pregnancy when alcohol is no harm. Damage could also occur in any organ in the body. First and foremost, it is only the genes and the individual metabolism, i.e. how quickly the substance is broken down in the body, that influence the extent of the effects.

Children each carry half the genes of their father and mother in their cells, so one could assume that they inherit the same proportion of different characteristics from both parents. In fact, however, the woman has a much stronger say. In the womb, nutrition and emotions, mediated by messenger substances, affect the baby and, among other things, change the signature of the genes, i.e. how the genetic blueprint is translated into proteins in the cells. One way of doing this is by attaching methyl groups to the building blocks of the genetic code. So it happens that a diabetic mother passes the metabolic disease on to her child much more often than genetically expected.

It actually sounds too flat to be true: Happy pregnant women give birth to happy children. If you stay cool in the circumstances, you will have a relaxed baby and if you lurch through the ten months over-anxiously, you will also have an unbalanced child. Can that be true?

If you ask neonatologists, obstetricians and neuroscientists about the relationship between the time in the womb and the later character of the child, the answer is astonishing: “Although a lot is still the subject of basic research, it is obvious that a happy mother tends to have a happy child “, Says Andreas Plagemann, obstetrician at the Charité. During the ten months, central control circuits in the brain and in the genes are calibrated. This process of fetal programming shapes behavior for a lifetime. “It's like a stamp that I press into modeling clay,” says Plagemann.

One such stamp, for example, is the stress an expectant mother feels during pregnancy. Cortisol is released in the body under stress. About ten percent of the hormone crosses the placental barrier and reaches the child's brain. The effects of cortisol on children have been very well researched - also because around one in ten pregnant women goes into premature labor and doctors then inject stress hormones to make the baby's lungs mature more quickly. The pharmacological stress level can be measured and related to the child's behavior.

A little seems to be enough to change behavior permanently: If pregnant women were only given stress hormones on two days, their children were still much more sensitive to stress at the age of eight, Matthias Schwab, neurologist from Jena University Hospital, showed in a study that has not yet been published. He also identified attention deficit disorder more frequently in the children concerned: those affected are less able to concentrate and are less likely to behave calmly than other peers. Even the IQ was lower. Premature birth could also explain such abnormalities. Schwab blames the stress hormones.

Genes and the brain react

In the brain, stress is primarily regulated by the hippocampus and hypothalamus. If the baby's cortisol level is permanently elevated during pregnancy, this is defined as normal. The body's own stress systems are adjusted in such a way that the child is stressed faster and more frequently - but this is also what it needs to be in top form. The stress axis, i.e. the activation chain within the stress system, becomes hyperactive, explains Schwab. However, no one has seen such a change in behavior among the offspring for a one-off relationship quarrel or a dispute at work. Rather, the effects are found in those people who almost always felt very stressed and nervous.

Animal experiments by researchers led by Tracy Bale from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine give a detailed insight into the mechanisms of this early adjustment of stress sensitivity. In a study they were able to show that maternal stress reduces the synthesis of an enzyme called OGT - ortho-N-acetylglucosamine transferase - which reprogrammes the brain of their fetuses before birth. OGT changes the translation of many genes into proteins and causes an energetic undersupply of the cells in the hypothalamus, as has also been observed in autism and schizophrenia.

Demented by prenatal stress?

To be calibrated for stress from birth is not bad per se. "Evolutively this is an advantage," emphasizes Schwab, "because these people are quicker on their guard and hardly put themselves into danger lightly." However, constant alertness is unfavorable for the nerve cells in the long term. Cortisol promotes cell death, inhibits the satisfaction hormone serotonin and causes increased blood pressure. This is why people who are constantly stressed get strokes more often and have a shorter life expectancy.

And that's not enough of the disadvantages, Schwab suspects: Because the stress hormone drives cell death, he expects that stress in the womb will mark the mental decline in old age. So does the dementia epidemic in industrialized nations stem from the constant stress of pregnant women? Schwab is currently investigating this suspicion in the EU project BrainAging. Corresponding long-term studies on humans are still missing. But animal experiments point in this direction, says Schwab: prenatal stress leads to premature aging of the brain in mice and primates. “We're seeing a previous atrophy. Put simply, the brain is wrinkled. "

Not only stress, but also specific emotions such as the mother's fear during pregnancy leave their mark on the child. This is not only, but above all, suggested by the studies by psychologist Bea van den Bergh from Tilburg University in Belgium. As early as 1989, she used a standardized psychological test to ascertain the anxiety of 86 pregnant women at various points in time. She noticed that the children of mothers who were very scary between the 12th and 22nd week of pregnancy cried a lot in the first seven months of life and slept and ate particularly irregularly.

In the first half of pregnancy, almost all nerve cells are created in the brain and, so van den Bergh suspects, the limbic system, the stress axis and various neurotransmitter systems in the baby's brain are calibrated to the level of fear experienced. Especially since fear is processed in the gray cells in a similar way to stress. If the mother was very worried, the little ones later produce a lot of stress hormones quickly on the smallest occasion in order to reach their normal value.

Such experiences in the womb would certainly grow out, one might think. But van den Bergh's work contradicts this. At the age of eight to nine, teachers and mothers more often judged those children who were carried out by an over-anxious woman as particularly difficult, unfocused and restless. These mothers had particularly high scores in a standardized test to determine anxiety because they stated, for example, that they were very often nervous, restless, worried, restless and were afraid of an accident. This permanent mental state had a lasting effect on her children. Even as teenagers between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, they are still more impulsive on tests. For example, they answer faster, but make more mistakes than other children. Even at the age of almost twenty, the differences, to van den Bergh's surprise, persisted: “They are not necessarily worse in the cognitive tests. For example, they are more creative and respond much more strongly to praise, ”she says. “But in settings with few stimuli, such as a boring school lesson, their behavior often falls out of the ordinary. You can't concentrate. They only get along well under stress - their normal state. "

In recent years van den Bergh has been able to fathom how the mother's fear affects the baby. Overly concerned women have particularly little of a specific enzyme that ensures that the stress hormone cortisol is broken down before it crosses the placenta. The brain and the genes of the unborn child are therefore exposed to particularly high levels of cortisol.

This affects very specific behaviors. According to one study, babies of anxious pregnant women reacted to a harmless daddada tone at the age of nine months with constant alertness. Usually, after hearing the sound a few times, the infants learn that it means nothing and ignore it. "In a safe environment, this sensitive reaction is a disadvantage and promotes anxiety disorders and other mental disorders," believes van den Bergh.

In a standardized test, the little ones also reacted more strongly to panicked female voices and paid more attention to them compared to cheerful chatter. So they are not only more fearful, but also filter fear-inducing information much more strongly from their environment. This is an advantage for children who are born in a crisis area. You can feel immediately when danger is imminent.

Not only the emotional situation, but also the mother's eating behavior influences the child she carries. How strong this influence can be was noticed years ago in the case of the disease diabetes mellitus. It is passed on through the maternal line two to three times more often. It was not clear why for a long time. Today the answer is known: The oversupply of food and blood sugar during pregnancy makes metabolic imbalance the norm in babies too. The hormones leptin and insulin usually help to cope with the flood of sugar and also give the signal for being full. But the brains of diabetic babies hardly respond to these substances. This has a lifelong effect on their eating behavior. They need lots of calories to satisfy their hunger.

Researchers even found evidence of a possible risk of addiction from the mother's diet - at least in animal experiments. The psychiatrist Nicole Avena from the University of Florida reported in 2013 that female rats who ate a lot of sugar and fat during pregnancy and lactation were more likely to give birth to a litter that later drank more of an alcohol solution and was less able to get rid of amphetamines .

Sugar and alcohol address the same reward systems in the brain. Children in whose families alcohol abuse occurs often also consume a particularly large number of sweets. Fourteen teaspoons in a glass of water are just right for them - twice as sweet as commercial cola. Other children, on the other hand, are satisfied with ten and a half spoons, according to a study by the American developmental biologist Julie Mennella from 2010.

So is the course already set in the womb for a later addiction if the pregnant woman eats a lot of sweet things? The researchers' opinions on this differ. "The white crystals are addicting," says epidemiologist Simon Thornley of the Auckland Regional Public Health Service. But Avena, who made the questionable findings, shies away from classifying sugar as a prenatal gateway drug. She wants to wait for further studies.

Pregnant and not sick

As illuminating as it is, research into fetal programming can unfortunately also exacerbate an existing, unpleasant trend: the pathologization of pregnancy. Expectant mothers are confronted with an abundance of preventive medical checkups and have to see a doctor more often than usual. "That does little to relax and encourage women, who know best what is good for them," criticizes van den Bergh. She hopes that, in spite of all the discoveries, pregnant women will not be put off by specialists or popular advisory literature and will trust their instinct.

Mozart, for example, doesn't hear the little one in the stomach anyway, because the music doesn't get through to him, but the traffic noise from the main street. But every song that the expectant mother likes and relaxes her is certainly good for the baby as well. So Led Zeppelin, Buena Vista Social Club or Bach - whatever she likes.

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