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$2 million to investigate how stress affects the unborn baby

28 September 2005

Eight thousand children will take part in a study to examine how anxiety and stress in pregnancy affects psychological development in adolescence.

Dr O'Connor's report on prenatal anxiety coincides with the announcement of a large follow-up project with the Children of the 90s study funded by the National Institutes of Health in the US. Eight thousand children will take part in the study to examine the mechanisms by which anxiety and stress in pregnancy may have long-term effects on psychological development in adolescence.

Families will be asked to collect saliva samples from children at the age of 14 so that scientists can examine cortisol levels and look at the longer term effects of stress on the mothers.

Dr O’Connor says that that the size of the grant – more than $2 million - reflects how importantly the issue of stress during pregnancy is now seen by medical researchers.

He says: “Some scientists have suggested that prenatal stress should be viewed alongside smoking and alcohol intake in pregnancy in terms of its potential adverse effects on the fetus.

“Data from a previous study in the United States indicate that 20.9 per cent of the population of 9-17 year-olds are affected with a debilitating mental illness. 13 per cent are diagnosed with anxiety disorder, 6.2 per cent with a mood disorder, and 10.3 per cent with a disruptive behaviour disorder.

“Early adolescence is characterized by a marked increase in the levels of serious and persistent mental disorder, notably depression, anxiety, and substance use.

“If we can identify why this happens, the mechanisms whereby early risks lead to later psychological disturbance in the child, it will have substantial application for doctors and the health services.

“If it is the case that stress/anxiety in pregnancy has a long-term direct effect on adjustment in adolescence, then that would suggest that we might be able to intervene during pregnancy to prevent some of this.”


ALSPAC The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol. It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed most of the children and parents in minute detail ever since.


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