Your baby, your "baby brain"

Stress during pregnancy increases the risk of schizophrenia in children. If that worries you, maybe you'll forget about it soon.

Published February 7, 2008 10:34PM (EST)

This Newsweek interview with Dr. Maurice Druzin is packed with enough stress-inducing hormones to make a pregnant mother swear off the media and her evening cocktail. Druzin is the researcher who found that traumatic events in a pregnant mother's life can raise the baby's risk of developing schizophrenia. But even if you're not pregnant, the study is still interesting: It offers more evidence that what happens in the womb can take its toll decades later in life.

The researchers looked at the records of 1.38 million Danish women, identified those who had a relative who died or fell ill just before or during their pregnancy and then watched all the offspring to see who developed schizophrenia. The wince-inducing findings, published this week in the Archives of General Psychiatry, indicated that intense maternal stress during pregnancy raised children's risk of schizophrenia by 67 percent.

When asked how pregnant women should deal with the constant stream of horrifying data, Druzin's recommendations were reasonable: do everything in moderation (except cigarettes and alcohol), mitigate stress through exercise and don't worry about the ill effects of stress you can't control. But all this news about how fetal development can affect our long-term mental and physical health is enough to raise women's cortisol levels and keep them there.

Luckily, the female body may have its own defense mechanism against information overload: memory loss. According to new research this month in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, the phenomenon of forgetfulness -- sometimes referred with an irritating wink as "baby brain" -- is real. In fact, the researchers who analyzed 14 international studies on memory in pregnant women discovered that memory impairment may occur for up to a year after giving birth and may amount to as much as the loss experienced by the average person between the ages of 20 and 60.

As usual, the researchers don't know why it happens, though they dosuggest it may be a combination of biological and environmental factors. Indeed, one would want to measure the effect of that special cocktail of sleep deprivation and anxiety that many pregnant women sip daily. At the very least researchers could form a control group of otherwise healthy men and women who stay up all night Googling how their diets, exercise levels and emotional states may send their loved ones to the hospital 30 years from now.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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