Stress, which can cause depression and anxiety, is best avoided—especially if a woman is pregnant, according to a new study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
The research showed that anxiety and cognitive problems in adulthood can be traced back to a mother's stress levels during pregnancy. That stress, which could alter the makeup of bacteria in a pregnant mother's intestine and placenta, could also be responsible for long-term alterations of their female offspring's intestinal tracts.
"Doctors and researchers are beginning to understand that naturally occurring bacteria are not just a silent presence in our bodies, but that they contribute to our health," says Tamar Gur, M.D., Ph.D., lead researcher and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral health, neuroscience and obstetrics and gynecology at The Ohio State University.
When pregnant mice were exposed to stress in the study, they were anxious, spent more time in dark, closed spaces, and they had a harder time learning cognitive tasks. The female offspring of the stressed mothers also performed worse on anxiety and cognitive tests even though they didn't encounter any stress after birth. Gur says the female offspring also displayed greater anxiety-like behavior and had a decreased ability to learn when compared with female mice from a non-stressed mother.
The team found interesting changes in the male offspring, but the details of that part of the study are still in the works.
Researchers say this study, along with others previously conducted on humans, suggest that mental health issues faced by people later in life could be a result of the microbial changes that take place in the placenta when the mother is stressed during pregnancy. "I think pregnancy is a prime time for intervention," Gur says.
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