Lead study author, Rosalind J. Wright, MD, MPH, of the Channing Laboratory at BWH, says previous studies have suggested that a mother’s stress during pregnancy may influence the offspring’s immune system starting in the womb. In this study, researchers investigated differences in immune function markers in cord blood of infants born to mothers in high stress environments and those born to mothers with lower stress. They found that the patterns of cytokines related to certain stimulants differed based on the level of stress mothers reported.
“The ctyokine patterns seen in the higher stress groups, which are an indication of how the child’s immune system is functioning at birth, may be a marker of increased risk for developing asthma and allergy as they get older,” explained Dr. Wright.
The researchers recruited pregnant women from urban areas. The families were largely ethnic minorities, with 20 percent living below the poverty level, and the father or pregnant mother having a history of asthma or allergy. The 557 families answered detailed questions about the various stressors in their lives, at home (including domestic violence), in their financial lives and in their neighborhoods (community violence). When the infants were born, their cord blood was collected; isolated immune cells were stimulated with a number of factors (allergens like dust and cockroach, viral and bacterial stimulants) and then analyzed for the production of various cytokines as indicators of how the child’s immune system was primed to respond to the environment.
“Current findings suggest that psychological stress is involved in programming of the infant immune response and that this influence begins during pregnancy,” said Dr. Wright. “As these infants mature, we will learn how these factors manifest later in terms of the development of asthma and allergy.”
The research, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and infectious Diseases, will continue as the infants grow up to determine whether maternal stress levels do indeed have an impact on asthma development.