Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

The Pre & Perinatal Origins of Childhood and Adult Diseases and Personality Disorders

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

The Pre & Perinatal Origins of Childhood and Adult Diseases and Personality Disorders

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper will explore the effects on the unborn and newborn child of psychological stress, depression, and other relevant maternal factors in the pre and perinatal period. Particular attention will be paid to the effects of stress on the organization and function of the fetal brain, on neurohormones, the immune system, personality evolution, as well as on the development of many childhood and adult diseases.

Keywords: Pregnancy, Prenatal, Stress, Neuroscience, Fetal Development


Stress refers to both the internal and external demands that we face to accommodate change. Stress becomes negative when adaptation or coping mechanisms fail. The primary hormonal mediators of the stress response are glucocorticoids (hormones secreted by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenal cortex) and catecholamines (secreted by the inner core of the adrenal gland). These hormones have both protective and damaging effects on the body. When they act for short periods of time they serve the functions of adaptation, homeostasis, and survival "allostasis" (McEwen, 2000). However, if the stress becomes chronic, associated hormones exact a cost, referred to as "allostatic load" that can accelerate disease processes. The concepts of allostasis and allostatic load center around the brain as interpreter and responder to environmental challenges and as a target of those challenges. Stress can be caused by a variety of factors such as:

* Exposure to chemical toxins, electromagnetic fields, ionizing radiation, etc

* Anxiety

* Depression

* Smoking and alcohol

* Undernutrition

* Disease, infection

* Physical trauma

* Birth complication

In this paper we shall focus almost entirely on psychological factors. Before we do, we need to take a brief look at the developing brain.

A Brief Introduction to Neuroscience

The last twenty years have produced more knowledge about the brain and how it develops than scientists had gleaned in the previous centuries.

In the past we learned about the brain through animal studies, autopsies, physical size and appearance of different brains, microscopic examination of brain tissue, and electrical stimulation of various parts of the brain, e.g. Wilder Penfield and EEG's. Also, observation of prenates with fiber optics - plus EEG leads demonstrated that the unborn child experiences REM sleep. In other words, he/she is most probably dreaming while asleep.

Current Neuroscience

* Ultrasound imaging - echoes produced by sound waves

* Magnetic Resonance Imaging - MRI - (exposes the body to a magnetic field)

* Functional MRI (magnetic field - computers - detailed images)

* Positron Emission Tomography-PET scan-we can observe brain structure and activity levels of various parts of the brain; it shows how the brain uses energy. A person is injected with a tracer chemical similar to glucose which produces color coded X-sectional images

* Correlating EEG's with videotapes, e.g. REM sleep studies

* Analysis of saliva for Cortisol. Measures stress hormone levels.

In view of recent brain research the nature vs. nurture controversy is dead. It is the dynamic relationship between nature and nurture that shapes human development. While genes play a role in determining temperament, the intrauterine environment that reflects what the mother is eating, drinking, inhaling, and experiencing has decisive influence on fetal development including temperament.

The brain develops from the outward-most layer, the ectoderm, of the very early embryo. The ectoderm forms a neural tube and this structure gradually gives rise to the cerebral hemispheres and the central and peripheral nervous system.

At birth we have 100 billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way. Forming and reinforcing neural circuits are the key processes of early brain development. …

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