Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Sending and Receiving: Biochemical Communication of Emotions between Prenate and Mother: A Call for Early Intervention

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Sending and Receiving: Biochemical Communication of Emotions between Prenate and Mother: A Call for Early Intervention

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This review article presents evidence for prenatal biochemical communication involving the mother, the placenta, and the prenate, and calls for prenatal intervention for at-risk dyads. The concept of prenatal biochemical communication is based on the view that the develoment of the self starts prenatally and is continuous and incremental. The study of prenatal programming has led to an understanding that the prenate and mother reciprocally influence each other via the placenta, which also provides many of its own contributions to the biochemistry of pregnancy, and that these effects may have long-range consequences in determining the course of adult health. Recent research has expanded this understanding to include the biochemicals associated with emotions and their transmission between the prenate and the mother, mediated by the placenta. After briefly touching on prenatal stress, which has been extensively studied, the review focuses on recent studies of maternal depression and PTSD. Hyperactivity, which may be a generic marker of prenatal stress response, is also briefly considered. The review concludes with a call for prenatal intervention for at risk mother-prenate dyads.

KEY WORDS: Biochemical communication, prenatal programming, pregnancy, maternal depression, PTSD, prenatal intervention.


Psychological research has historically framed questions concerning the influence of the caregiver's emotions on the child in terms of the child's postnatal experience. More recently, however, evidence has been accumulating that the mother's responses in the prenatal environment play a significant role in the development of the child, both pre- and postnatally. This paper examines the accumulating psychobiological evidence for prenatal physiological transmission of maternal emotional traits to the prenate. The research presented highlights the possibility of, and the need for, early intervention with at-risk individuals.

After a summary of the arguments for the incremental development of the self beginning in the prenatal period, and hence for prenatal learning, evidence will be reviewed for the transmission of maternal biological markers for depression and PTSD to the prenate, increasing the prenate's risk for those disorders. In addition, the effects of maternal stress will be briefly reviewed, as well as evidence for fetal hyperactivity in response to various stressors.


Scholars from disciplines as diverse as neurobiology, developmental psychoneuroendocrinology, and psychoanalysis have expressed the notion that the sense of self exists prenatally, in some early, inchoate form (Bion's proto-mind, Winnicott's psyche-soma, Damasio's mammalian proto-self) (Bianchedi et al., 1997; Damasio, 1999, pp. 16-19, 154-156; Winnicott, 1958, p. 191), quite different from the reflexive, self-aware, cognitive, verbal self that is often implied in discussions of the development of the self. These scholars also believe that this early self develops in interaction with its environment. Just as the postnatal development of the brain's neural pathways is seen as shaped by experience during and after birth (Schore, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2003a, 2003b), learning also occurs prenatally: "Study of the prenatal ontogenesis of behavior suggests that the mind will emerge in an immature form and that stimulation received in utero, and the behavior emitted, will play an important role in the development of the fetus" (Hepper & Shahidullah, 1994); although the experiences may be different from our classic understanding of learning (for example, habitual washes of hormones from the mother's emotions that result in long-term, possibly lifelong, changes to the prenate's response patterns). Rather than verbal and cognitive, this learning is nonverbal, probably biochemical as well as neural, and is stored as cellular or procedural rather than explicit memory.

The development of a sense of self can be viewed as being like an everexpanding sphere, starting with the prenatal psyche-soma and the physiological core of hormonal and other exchanges between prenate/ infant and mother, adding new layers as the infant/child continues to develop new capabilities (emotional/limbic maturity, ego and selfawareness, awareness of others, cognition, boundaries, somatic awareness, etc. …

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