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Researchers study how stress affects fetus

graphic
Computer exercises are used to raise Margo Lowenstein's stress levels
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  • May 24, 1999
    Web posted at: 4:51 p.m. EDT (2051 GMT)

    From Medical Correspondent Dan Rutz

    NEW YORK (CNN) -- There are signs that tension may take its toll early in life, possibly while a fetus is still in the womb, researchers say.

    In a groundbreaking study at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, reactions to everyday stress are measured on both the mother's and unborn baby's systems.

    "If our research -- and there are a few other labs doing fetal research -- start to show data showing these emotions are registered in the fetus, they may have something to say about development," said researcher Catherine Monk. "I think we'll really be in a place to educate our colleagues that this is important and hopefully to start up some intervention programs."

    To measure stress, pregnant women complete a series of computer exercises, purposely designed to be frustrating. As a woman struggles with the problems, electronic sensors record her heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, as well as fetal heart rate and movement.

    "It will be interesting to see if my emotional state or my stress level will affect her level, the baby's body," said study participant Margo Lowenstein.

    The key question is whether stress before birth can permanently affect a child's development.

    "It's likely that it's having some effect on development just because this is a time when the brain is developing at such a rapid rate," Monk said. "The whole system is getting set up."

    Other studies already relate severe stress in pregnancy with low birthrate and premature delivery.

    "I would believe it," Lowenstein says. "I know for myself if I'm stressed out my neck will get sore or something."

    Just how much the world beyond the womb affects the developing child within is still unclear. But the evidence is growing that our first encounter with stress begins long before the first breath.



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