Stress in the womb can last a lifetime, say researchers behind new exhibit

Stress in the womb can last a lifetime, say researchers behind new exhibit

Imperial scientists at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition show people why pregnant women should relax - <em>News Release</em>

Imperial College London News Release

Under strict embargo for
00.01 hours British Summer Time
Tuesday 30 June 2009

Visitors can see how their stress levels could affect the heart rate of their unborn baby and find out why pregnant women should reduce their anxiety, at a new exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, which opens today (30 June 2009).

The researchers behind the exhibit, from Imperial College London, hope that it will raise families’ awareness of the importance of reducing levels of stress and anxiety in expectant mothers. They say that reducing stress during pregnancy could help prevent thousands of children from developing emotional and behavioural problems.

Visitors to the Exhibition will have the chance to play a game that shows how a mother’s stress can increase the heart rate of her unborn baby. They will also be able to touch a real placenta, encased safely in plastic. The placenta is crucial for fetal development and it usually protects the unborn baby from the stress hormone cortisol. However, when the mother is stressed, the placenta becomes less protective and the mother’s cortisol may have an effect on the fetus.

The Imperial researchers’ work has shown that maternal stress and anxiety can alter the development of the baby’s brain. This in turn can result in a greater risk of emotional problems such as anxiety or depression, behavioural problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and being considerably slower at learning. Some studies have even suggested that it may increase the likelihood of later violent or criminal behaviour. Their findings have suggested that the effects of stress during pregnancy can last many years, including into adolescence.

Professor Vivette Glover, lead researcher behind the exhibit from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London, said: “We all know that if a mother smokes or drinks a lot of alcohol while pregnant it can affect her fetus. Our work has shown that other more subtle factors, such as her emotional state, can also have long -term effects on her child. We hope our exhibit will demonstrate in a fun way why we all need to look after expectant mothers’ emotional wellbeing."

The researchers say expectant mothers should relax

“Our research shows that stress due to the mother’s relationship with her partner can be particularly damaging. We want fathers visiting our exhibit to see how they can help with the development of their child even before the birth, by helping their partner to stay happy,” added Professor Glover.

The researchers say that the stress hormone cortisol may be one way in which the fetus is affected by the mother’s anxiety during pregnancy. Usually the placenta protects the unborn baby from the mother’s cortisol, by producing an enzyme that breaks the hormone down. When the mother is very stressed, this enzyme works less well and lets her cortisol through the placenta. By studying the amount of cortisol in the amniotic fluid, the Imperial researchers’ latest study suggests that the higher the level of cortisol in the womb, the lower the toddler’s cognitive development or “baby IQ” at 18 months.

Kieran O’ Donnell, from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London, said: “We are very excited to have this opportunity to talk with the public about our work. We think that by promoting awareness of this subject we may be able to benefit many families in the future.”

The scientists will be on hand at the exhibition, which runs from 30 June to 4 July.


For further information please contact:

Lucy Goodchild
Press Officer
Imperial College London
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7594 6702 or ext. 46702
Out of hours Duty Press Officer: +44 (0)7803 886 248

Notes to editors:

1. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 13,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.

Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.


2. Press preview of this exhibit and others on show: 15.00 - 17.00 on Monday 30 June - please register your interest with the Royal Society press office.

3. General info: The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition showcases cutting edge research in science and engineering from across the UK. It is held annually at the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science.

The Exhibition runs from Tuesday 30 June to Saturday 4 July 2008.

The event is FREE and open to the public.

This year, 23 interactive exhibits will be on show presenting the best of UK science, engineering and technology. During the four days of the event, more than 4,000 people are expected to take up the opportunity to explore the exhibition.

The Royal Society can be found at 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG. Nearest tube stations are Piccadilly Circus or Charing Cross.

4. Exhibition opening times:

Tuesday 30 June 2009: 10am - 9pm Wednesday 1 July 2009: 10am - 5pm Thursday 2 July 2009: 10am - 5pm Friday 3 July 2009: 10am - 5pm Saturday 4 July 2009: 10am - 5pm

Last entry 30 minutes before closing

Further information can be found at

5. The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. As we prepare for our 350th anniversary in 2010, we are working to achieve five strategic priorities, to:
* Invest in future scientific leaders and in innovation
* Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice
* Invigorate science and mathematics education
* Increase access to the best science internationally
* Inspire an interest in the joy, wonder and excitement of scientific discovery

6. Between November 2009 and November 2010, the Royal Society will be celebrating its 350th anniversary, promoting a spirit of enquiry, excitement and engagement with science. The Society will be working with organisations, across the country to raise the profile of science and bring scientific activities to a new audience. This will include:
* A unique nine-day science festival in the summer of 2010, held at the Southbank Centre in London. There will be collaborations with artists and performers, debates, broadcasting and the participation of audiences. In particular, it will include an enhanced version of the Society's annual summer science exhibition, which gives visitors the opportunity to meet the scientists and engineers at the forefront of the UK's research activities and to explore their work through interactive exhibits.
* The Local Heroes programme - the Society will be working with fifty smaller museums and galleries around the UK to celebrate their local scientific heroes, whether they are pioneers of the industrial age, geniuses that changed the way we see the world today or contemporary scientists finding solutions to today's problems.
* Public lectures, debates and discussion meetings at the Society's premises in Carlton House Terrace.
* Publication of special editions of the Society's scientific journals and a popular book covering the unique history of science and scientific issues of the last 350 years.

More information about the anniversary year can be found at

For further information contact:
Nicola Kane
Press and Public Relations
The Royal Society, London
Tel: 020 7451 2508
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