Editorial 9: On neuroplasticity, foetal programming, stress during pregnancy, and maternal love

July 2011

On a genetic base, inherited from its parents, which provides the backbone for the development of the central nervous system, there is a powerful environmental influence that plays a prominent role in the final moulding of a child’s brain. There are a number of tested examples of the influence of hazardous, hostile or toxic environments in the development of the brain, and the association of those environments with the appearance of mental or neuro-developmental diseases, sometimes starting at the time of birth and sometimes appearing later on. For instance, today we clearly know that mothers who smoke heavily during pregnancy are more prone to having children with ADHD; that various traumatic or disease-related events during the second quarter of pregnancy are associated with schizophrenia; that stress during pregnancy is associated with a poorer development of intelligence, and that certain drugs during the first quarter cause serious malformation. The environment, therefore, may change the course of development in spite of the child having proper biological programming. The brain is a highly malleable organ, which may be finely moulded in the early stages of life, and probably to a much lesser degree in later stages. By modifying the brain structure during sensitive moments of its development, its functionality may also be modified. Foetal programming refers to the fact that the way in which the brain is structured leads to a certain way of functioning in the longer term. For instance, a brain which in its foetal stage was subject to very intensive stress may become hyperactive during childhood and during adult life, will function as if in a state of permanent alarm.

Stress, especially at the end of pregnancy, is associated with behavioural problems among children. And it’s no surprise. Biologically there is a direct communication, a clear mixing of the mother’s and the baby’s blood. Therefore, hormones circulating in the mother’s body will also flow through the baby’s body. Adrenalin, cortisol and other stress hormones have effects on cardiac rhythm, arterial pressure, and blood flow in both the mother and the child. Also, in the child, those same hormones influence the conditions involved in how systems or core areas related to stress behave, such as the amygdaloid nucleus and the hypothalamus. Fortunately, the hormones associated with pleasure, relaxation, endorphins, and oxytocin also flow through the baby’s body, and they likewise mould the brain during its growth. In this way, there are ‘footprints’ of what a baby has experienced during pregnancy in the cerebral structure.

Besides communication through the blood stream, there is also perceptive communication. Sensorial organs develop very soon, and babies are capable of feeling, hearing, touching and maybe even smelling. Some writers go further and even speak of a spiritual, extrasensory relationship, which is much more complex to generalise and which is probably easily understood in an intimate, individual context, but which could not easily be recorded empirically.

This type of information, the importance of the mother’s circumstances and what she goes through during pregnancy, may cause concern if we do not look further and see that environmental factors may also be used to counter previous damages. Recent research published by a respected journal, Biological Psychiatry, points out that maternal love and sensitive care after childbirth favours a strong bond between mother and child and protects against the risks borne during pregnancy. For instance, loving and sensitive care during the first years of a child’s life may counter the effects of stress during pregnancy on the child’s intellectual development.

At the Elisabeth d´Ornano Association we wish to stress the importance of greater care during pregnancy than is currently practised. We want to set emotional care during pregnancy at the same level as physical care and, in the same way that a number of public health strategies have served to minimise the physical health difficulties of newborn babies and children (via the adequate monitoring of pregnancy), preventive measures should be implemented so that children enjoy a healthier emotional development than at present. The physical health indicators (prenatal, maternal and infant mortality) are very good in Spain. However, mental health indicators among children (emotional and behaviour-related difficulties, difficulty in adapting and school failure) are not. We think that intervention with measures to support mothers, and if necessary therapeutic measures, providing and enabling the establishing of secure bonds between mothers and children, will allow us to enhance the early emotional development of individuals.

Prof. Thomas O’Connor, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Rochester and Director of the Wynne Center for Family Research. Biological Psychiatry 2010.

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