Many women struggle with depression and other mood disorders while pregnant. Exposure to these mood disorders during pregnancy may cause the offspring to exhibit long-term emotional and behavioral problems later in life. Previous studies show fetal experiences in the womb strongly influences behavioral problems by changing the way the child’s brain develops, although scientists do not yet understand exactly how this happens.

Researchers do suspect that the hormone cortisol has something to do with it. Cortisol is part of the “fight or flight” response when the body senses mortal danger. There is a growing body of evidence that overexposure to cortisol before birth causes lasting consequences for the child, especially in the areas of mental health and behavior.

Elisabeth Conradt and her team of researchers wanted to know more about the influence mood disorders during pregnancy has on newborn behavior. They were particularly interested in two genes relating to the health of the placenta, the organ that provides the fetus with nutrients. Other scientists had suspected that stress affects the function of these genes. The medical community uses the phrase “gene expression” to describe gene function. Researchers know that environmental influences can alter gene expression in ways that cause illness.

In the report published in the journal Epigenetics, the researchers said that increased cortisol levels in the mother cause changes to occur in the baby’s brain, especially changes to those two genes relating to the placenta. This exposure to cortisol may cause a change in gene expression that ultimately results in neurodevelopmental disorders, which are problems in the development of a baby’s brain and nervous system. Neurodevelopmental disorders may cause conditions like those on the autism spectrum, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, epilepsy, Tourette syndrome and more.

The researchers of this study support the theory that the risk for poor neurodevelopment in children may begin in the womb. Early diagnosis and effective treatment for stress and other emotional disorders in pregnant women may reduce the risk of neurodevelopmental problems in children.

Source: Conradt, Elisabeth. "Epigenetics: Research Paper." Epigenetics. 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.