Stress During Pregnancy May Increase Offspring’s Risk of Developing Asthma

A child's risk for asthma may be raised if the child's mother was under stress during pregnancy.

Boston, MA, April 16, 2010 --( During pregnancy, stress can have detrimental effects on both mother and child. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Harvard Medical School have now found that stress during pregnancy may raise the risk of asthma in offspring. This study is published online in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine on March 18, 2010.

Lead study author, Rosalind J. Wright, MD, MPH, of the Channing Laboratory at BWH, says previous studies have suggested that a mother’s stress during pregnancy may influence the offspring’s immune system starting in the womb. In this study, researchers investigated differences in immune function markers in cord blood of infants born to mothers in high stress environments and those born to mothers with lower stress. They found that the patterns of cytokines related to certain stimulants differed based on the level of stress mothers reported.

"The ctyokine patterns seen in the higher stress groups, which are an indication of how the child's immune system is functioning at birth, may be a marker of increased risk for developing asthma and allergy as they get older,” explained Dr. Wright.

The researchers recruited pregnant women from urban areas. The families were largely ethnic minorities, with 20 percent living below the poverty level, and the father or pregnant mother having a history of asthma or allergy. The 557 families answered detailed questions about the various stressors in their lives, at home (including domestic violence), in their financial lives and in their neighborhoods (community violence). When the infants were born, their cord blood was collected; isolated immune cells were stimulated with a number of factors (allergens like dust and cockroach, viral and bacterial stimulants) and then analyzed for the production of various cytokines as indicators of how the child’s immune system was primed to respond to the environment.

“Current findings suggest that psychological stress is involved in programming of the infant immune response and that this influence begins during pregnancy,” said Dr. Wright. “As these infants mature, we will learn how these factors manifest later in terms of the development of asthma and allergy.”

The research, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and infectious Diseases, will continue as the infants grow up to determine whether maternal stress levels do indeed have an impact on asthma development.

Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) is a 777-bed nonprofit teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and a founding member of Partners HealthCare, an integrated health care delivery network. In July of 2008, the hospital opened the Carl J. and Ruth Shapiro Cardiovascular Center, the most advanced center of its kind. BWH is committed to excellence in patient care with expertise in virtually every specialty of medicine and surgery. The BWH medical preeminence dates back to 1832, and today that rich history in clinical care is coupled with its national leadership in quality improvement and patient safety initiatives and its dedication to educating and training the next generation of health care professionals. Through investigation and discovery conducted at its Biomedical Research Institute (BRI), BWH is an international leader in basic, clinical and translational research on human diseases, involving more than 860 physician-investigators and renowned biomedical scientists and faculty supported by more than $416 M in funding. BWH is also home to major landmark epidemiologic population studies, including the Nurses' and Physicians' Health Studies and the Women's Health Initiative. For more information about BWH, please visit

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