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Home / Latest News / Risk of mental illness in adulthood if development affected in the womb

Risk of mental illness in adulthood if development affected in the womb

Adults could be at greater risk of becoming anxious and vulnerable to poor mental health if they were deprived of certain hormones while developing in the womb, new research has found.

A study by scientists at Cardiff and Cambridge universities has discovered that emotional behaviour in adults could be triggered in the womb.

Although the studies were carried out in mice, the findings may have wider implications for human development.

The research, which was published in Nature Communications, is the first time scientists have linked changes in adult behaviour to alterations in the placental function in the womb.

Professor Lawrence Wilkinson, a behavioural neuroscientist from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, said: “The growth of a baby is a very complex process and there are lots of control mechanisms which make sure that the nutrients required by the baby to grow can be supplied by the mother.

“We were interested in how disrupting this balance could influence emotional behaviours a long time after being born, as an adult.”

Prof Wilikinson worked with Dr Trevor Humby and Mikael Mikaelsson from Cardiff University and Dr Miguel Constancia from Cambridge University on the research.

Dr Humby said: “There seemed to be considerable links with the development of brain disorders and mental health issues such as schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and in terms of anxiety.”

In order to explore how a mismatch between supply and demand of certain nutrients might affect humans, the team examined the behaviour of adult mice by adapting the supply of a vital hormone.

Dr Humby said: “We achieved this by damaging a hormone called Insulin-like growth factor-2, which is important for controlling growth in the womb. What we found when we did this was an imbalance in the supply of nutrients controlled by the placenta, and that this imbalance had major effects on how subjects were during adulthood – namely, that subject became more anxious later in life.”

He said these symptoms were accompanied by specific changes in brain gene expression.

Dr Humby said: “This is the first example of what we have termed ‘placental-programming’ of adult behaviour. We do not know exactly how these very early life events can cause long-range effects on our emotional predispositions but we suspect that our research findings may indicate that the seeds of our behaviour, and possibly vulnerability to brain and mental health disorders, are sown much earlier than previously thought.”

Further studies are now planned to investigate the brain mechanisms linking early life events, placental dysfunction and the emotional state of adults.

Dr Humby said: “It could lead to a better understanding of early life and the knock-on effects that might happen. Even very early on events might alter who we are and how we behave. Placenta changes might lead to people further researching pregnancy and what might be happening there and indications of how these brain and mental health disorders might come about.”

A spokesman for the charity Hafal, which supports people with a mental illness and their families, said: “This new research looks interesting and we look forward to reading the detail of the findings. Hafal believes it is crucial for mental health problems to be identified as soon as possible and for support, care and treatment to be provided at the earliest possible opportunity.”

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