Ex­po­sure to ter­ror in preg­nancy raises baby’s risk of schizophre­nia

The Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - • By JUDY SIEGEL

The chil­dren of women ex­posed to ter­ror­ist at­tacks dur­ing preg­nancy are 2.5 times more likely to de­velop schizophre­nia than average, ac­cord­ing to a com­pre­hen­sive Univer­sity of Haifa study.

“It is pos­si­ble that the psy­choso­cial stress of ter­ror at­tacks in the moth­ers oc­curred dur­ing a crit­i­cal pe­riod of fe­tal brain de­vel­op­ment,” ex­plained Prof. Stephen Levine, one of the au­thors of the study. These in­flu­ences dur­ing such a crit­i­cal pe­riod of neu­rode­vel­op­ment are so pow­er­ful that years later, the risk of schizophre­nia in­creased, he added.

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies have found that ex­po­sure to ter­ror­ist at­tacks by watch­ing TV or other me­dia re­port­ing causes dam­age and loss of psy­cho­log­i­cal re­sources.

In the present study, the re­searchers wanted to know whether ba­bies born to moth­ers ex­posed to ter­ror­ist at­tacks – but not in­volved in them – faced a higher risk of schizophre­nia.

The study, pub­lished in the jour­nal Schizophre­nia Re­search, was car­ried out by doc­toral stu­dent Yael We­in­stein, psy­chol­ogy Prof. Stephen Levine, psy­chi­a­try Prof. Itzhak Le­vav, Prof. Marc Gelkopf and Prof. David Roe of the univer­sity’s depart­ment of com­mu­nity health, and Inna Pu­ga­chova and Ri­nat Yoffe of the Health Min­istry’s in­for­ma­tion and eval­u­a­tion depart­ment. It was based on data re­lat­ing to 201,048 chil­dren – 97,711 girls and 103,337 boys – born be­tween 1975 and 1995. The chil­dren were mon­i­tored over an average pe­riod of 27 years to de­ter­mine whether they de­vel­oped schizophre­nia.

The lat­est study is part of a se­ries by Le­vav and Levine on the con­nec­tion be­tween the ex­po­sure of moth­ers to stress and the risk of psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders in their off­spring

Be­tween 1975 and 1995, there were 782 ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Is­rael that oc­curred on 622 dif­fer­ent days. Ac­cord­ing to the re­search model, if an at­tack oc­curred dur­ing preg­nancy, the mother of the child is de­fined as hav­ing been ex­posed to it. Levine said that the re­searchers were aware that their de­ci­sion to de­fine ex­po­sure to ter­ror­ism in this man­ner could in­clude in their group a woman who might not even have heard of an at­tack that took place far away from her – or when she was not in the coun­try – along with another woman who was ex­posed to a closer ter­ror­ist at­tack or even sev­eral. This could dis­tort the find­ings, they said.

Thus they re­searchers ap­plied var­i­ous an­a­lyt­i­cal tools and found that these fac­tors did not seem to al­ter the study con­clu­sion. More­over, the large sam­ple size, which in­cluded hun­dreds of thou­sands of items of data, re­duced the risk of sta­tis­ti­cal er­ror, the re­searchers said.

The re­search find­ings show that chil­dren born to moth­ers ex­posed to ter­ror­ist at­tacks are 2.5 times more likely to de­velop schizophre­nia than those whose moth­ers were not ex­posed. A to­tal of 3,257 chil­dren were born to moth­ers ex­posed to ter­ror­ism, of whom 0.64% were di­ag­nosed with schizophre­nia. In the con­trol group, com­pris­ing women not ex­posed to ter­ror­ism, a to­tal of 197,791 chil­dren were born, 0.25% of whom were di­ag­nosed with schizophre­nia.

“Preg­nancy is a crit­i­cal pe­riod for the de­vel­op­ment of the brain and is in­flu­enced by stress re­sult­ing from ex­po­sure to ter­ror. Ma­ter­nal ex­po­sure to ter­ror in preg­nancy may dam­age the fe­tus’s im­mune sys­tem, lead­ing to an in­crease in the level of glu­co­cor­ti­coid hor­mones and dis­rupt­ing the de­vel­op­ment of the brain,” Levine said.

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