Stress in the womb affects health later in life

Predisposition to and the rapid spread of diseases such as ADHD, depression, stroke or dementia are not entirely due to genetic factors or even an unhealthy lifestyle. Scientists maintain that life in the womb can influence the development of these disorders in adult life. “Unfavorable environmental conditions, such as stress in the womb at critical stages of fetal organ development can lead to what scientists call fetal programming of diseases in later life, states the Jena-based Neurologist Matthias Schwab. Stress and the amount of nutrient supply are the major environmental conditions to which the fetus is exposed.

In the womb, stress for the unborn can result from maternal psychological stress or from moderate nutrient restriction caused by maternal diet or placenta insufficiency. The latter is not uncommon in older pregnancies. “Stress in the womb prepares the fetus to anticipated unfavorable environmental conditions. Programming of a higher stress sensitivity and anxiety ensures survival in poor environmental conditions. Stress sensitivity is regulated by permanent changes in gene translation,” explains Prof. Schwab from the Jena University Hospital. Alterations in gene translation allow fast adaptation to changes in environmental conditions without any changes to our genes.

“In biological terms, an increased sensitivity to stress can initially be regarded as positive. Optimized stress specific reactions such flight and alertness are important adaptation mechanisms that ensured survival during the course of evolution. Almost everyone has experienced stress-related alertness, such as in exam situations: here stress-related alertness allows us to fully focus on the task at hand,” states Matthias Schwab. However, increased sensitivity to stress is also associated with adverse effects. Stress is related to common diseases such as ADHD, depression and high blood pressure. Increased stress sensitivity enhances the risk of stroke, leads to cognitive impairment and early brain aging.

Matthias Schwab coordinates a 3 million Euro EU-funded research consortium BrainAge in which European and American researchers are investigating the “Impact of Prenatal Stress on BRAIN AGEing”. In the project, molecular biologists, neuroscientists, physiologists, psychologists, and epidemiologists from Europe and the USA work together performing innovative experimental and epidemiological work to study the effects and underlying mechanisms of prenatal stress that lead to alterations in brain development and increased susceptibility to stress and consequently to the above-mentioned stress-related diseases.

At the symposium in Berlin, renowned scientists from around the world will discuss the latest developments in this field and exciting and novel results arising from the BrainAge project will be also be presented.

Symposium and Contact Details:
Symposium „Prenatal Stress and Brain Disorders in Later Life”
20.-22. September 2015, Seehotel Zeuthen, Fontaneallee 27, 15738 Zeuthen, Berlin

For the Organizers:
Prof. Dr. Matthias Schwab
Head of the research group „Fetal Brain Development and Programming von Diseases in Later Life“
Department of Neurology, Jena University Hospital
Tel. +49 3641/9 32 34 09

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