Researchers from McGill University in Canada have found some interesting data about a child’s DNA and how the mother’s stress during pregnancy can alter it. Since they could not ethically put pregnant women under enough stress to test this theory, they turned to a natural disaster. The researchers, Lei Cao-Lei and Suzanne King, collected data from 176 women who had been pregnant during the Great Ice Storm of 1998. The data is being used as part of Project Ice Storm.
When the women were brought in to answer questions about the storm they were asked about the hardships that the storm brought about. The researchers wanted to know how long they were without electricity, running water, and heat for example. The women were recruited for the study immediately after the storm. Then they were called back 13 years later for the continuation of the study. They looked at the genes of 36 of the kids that came from those pregnancies.
What they found was that the overall stress of the women during the storm didn’t have much of an effect on the DNA of their child, but the objective hardships certainly did. Objective hardships are things like being without electricity for extended periods of time. The researchers found that the longer the women were without electricity they more the DNA of their children changed. The immune system genes were the ones that were changed the most. What they discovered was that the way that the genes for the immune system changed and adapted was much like how their body would respond if they were under stress themselves.
These theories have been researched in animals as well before they began going to a human phase. The results were a little different since the animals couldn’t be put under the same stress that the mothers were put under, but it appeared that the results were very similar. They found that the baby’s DNA in animals had a response to the stress as well. They are going to continue doing more research to try and pinpoint exactly what it is about the stress that causes the DNA to change.