Don’t blame the mothers

From folk medicine to popular culture, there is an abiding fascination with how the experiences of pregnant women imprint on their descendants. The latest wave in this discussion flows from studies of epigenetics — analyses of heritable changes to DNA that affect gene activity but not nucleotide sequence. Such DNA modification has been implicated in a child’s future risk of obesity, diseases such as diabetes, and poor response to stress.

Headlines in the press reveal how these findings are often simplified to focus on the maternal impact: ‘Mother’s diet during pregnancy alters baby’s DNA’ (BBC), ‘Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes’ (Discover), and ‘Pregnant 9/11 survivors transmitted trauma to their children’ (The Guardian). Factors such as the paternal contribution, family life and social environment receive less attention.

Questions about the long shadow of the uterine environment are part of a burgeoning field known as developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD)1. For example, one study revealed2 that 45% of children born to women with type 2 diabetes develop diabetes by their mid-twenties, compared with 9% of children whose mothers developed diabetes after pregnancy.

DOHaD would ideally guide policies that support parents and children, but exaggerations and over-simplifications are making scapegoats of mothers, and could even increase surveillance and regulation of pregnant women. As academics working in DOHaD and cultural studies of science, we are concerned. We urge researchers, press officers and journalists to consider the ramifications of irresponsible discussion.

Read on, in Nature.  Lots of useful data here, and great arguments.