April 22, 2014
Science Daily/Children's National Medical Center
When mothers are exposed to trauma, illness, alcohol or other drug abuse, these stressors may activate a single molecular trigger in brain cells that can go awry and activate conditions such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and some forms of autism.
Until now, it has been unclear how much these stressors have impacted the cells of a developing brain. Past studies have shown that when an expectant mother exposes herself to alcohol or drug abuse or she experiences some trauma or illness, her baby may later develop a psychiatric disorder later in life. But the new findings identify a molecular mechanism in the prenatal brain that may help explain how cells go awry when exposed to certain environmental conditions.
While it has been generally accepted that exposure to harmful environmental factors increase the susceptibility of the brain to neurological and psychiatric disorders, new types of environmental agents are continuingly added to the mix, requiring evolving studies, Hasimoto-Torii says.
Hashimoto-Torii notes that autism rates have increased substantially and "more people are having these exposures to environmental stressors," she says. While there have been many studies that have identified singular stressors, such as alcohol, there have not been enough studies to focus on many different environmental factors and their impacts, such as heavy metals as well as alcohol and other toxic exposure, she adds.
Identifying many risk factors helped Hashimoto-Torii and other researchers identify the gene that may be linked to neurological problems. "Different stressors may have different stress responses," she says. She examined risk factors specifically involving epilepsy, ADHD, autism and schizophrenia. Eventually, it may open the door "to provide therapy in the future to reduce the risk" and protect vulnerable cells.