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Life Stressors Trigger Neurological Disorders in Fetuses

neurological disorders in fetusesWhen expectant mothers are exposed to trauma, illness, or alcohol/drug abuse, the stressors may activate a single molecular trigger in developing brains, triggering neurological disorders in fetuses, such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and some forms of autism.[1] Until recently, it has remained unclear as to how much these stressors are able to impact the cells of a developing brain.1 Past studies have shown that when a pregnant woman exposes herself to alcohol or drug abuse, or if she experiences some type of trauma or illness, her baby may develop a psychiatric disorder later on.1 However, new findings identify the molecular mechanism that causes neurological disorders in fetuses due to these stressors.1

Kazue Hasimoto-Torii, PhD, and Principal Investigator of the Center for Neuroscience, Children’s National Health System, and colleagues found that mouse embryos that were exposed to alcohol, methyl-mercury, or maternal seizures activate a single gene, HSF1, also known as the heart shock factor.1

The researchers report, “The HSF1 plays a crucial role in the response of brain cells to prenatal environmental insults. The gene protects and enables brain cells to survive prenatal assaults. Mice lacking the HSF1 gene showed structural brain abnormalities and were prone to seizures after birth following exposures to very low levels of toxins.”1

Even in the mice where the HSF1 gene was properly activated to combat the environmental insults, the molecular mechanism alone may still permanently change how brain cells respond, and may be why some are more susceptible to neurological disorders later in life.1

Work with stem cells have also provided findings that supported the researchers’ theory.1 While it has been generally accepted that exposure to harmful environmental factors increase the susceptibility of neurological disorders in fetuses, new types of environmental agents are continuously being added to the list.1

Hasimoto-Torii states, “Autism rates have increased substantially and more people are having these exposures to environmental stressors. While there have been many studies that have identified singular stressors, such as alcohol, there have not been enough studies to focus on many different environmental factors and their impacts, such as heavy metals and other toxic exposure.”1

She adds, “Different stressors may have different stress responses.”1



[1] Children’s National Medical Center. (2014, April 22). Life stressors trigger neurological disorders, researchers find. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 29, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140422113430.htm

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