In early pregnancy, several days of intense, unremitting mental stress in a mother-such as might occur with the death of a loved one or loss of a job--may reprogram a baby's development in ways that foster high blood pressure in adulthood. That conclusion, from Australian studies with sheep, supplies a physiologic basis for the link between fetal stress and adult hypertension that has been suggested by several studies of human populations.
E. Marelyn Wintour-Coghlan and her colleagues at the University of Melbourne continuously administered cortisol--a natural stress hormone--to pregnant sheep for 2 days during their 5-month pregnancies. The researchers induced blood concentrations of cortisol that are typical in highly stressed animals. In an upcoming FASEB Journal, Wintour-Coghlan's team reports that cortisol can cross the placenta from mother to fetus.
In the current study, some ewes received cortisol early--during a period corresponding to between the fifth and seventh week of human gestation, some toward the middle of pregnancy, and others not at all. The ewes' lambs were then studied for up to 7 years--into late middle age.
The Australian team showed that at birth, the animals exposed to …