Stress and exposure to pollution during pregnancy could modify the activity of some genes with potential repercussions on the baby. This is suggested by a study by the Department of Nervous System and Behavioral Sciences of the University of Pavia and of the Developmental Psychobiology Lab of the Mondino Foundation of Pavia published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. In fact, scientists have seen that the combined effects of maternal stress and exposure to fine dust (fine particles) in the air alter the level of “methylation” of newborns’ DNA, a chemical modification of DNA that influences the activity of genes .
The study delves into the complex relationship between prenatal maternal stress caused by the pandemic and exposure to fine particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5). Research has focused in particular on the regulation of serotonin transporter gene activity (SLC6A4 important for mood regulation) and its implications for infant well-being. Research has found higher levels of DNA methylation in specific regions of the SLC6A4 gene in infants born to mothers exposed during pregnancy to high levels of pandemic-related stress and increased exposure to PM2.5; this may lead to lower SLC6A4 gene activity in these infants.
The effects were particularly evident when exposure to elevated PM2.5 occurred during the second trimester of pregnancy. This suggests a possible sensitive time window for developmental impacts related to stress and environmental exposures. “Our results underscore the importance of understanding how environmental factors, such as pollution, interact with maternal stressful events to influence infant development,” explains lead author Livio Provenzi. “This research highlights a critical period during pregnancy during which the combined effects of stress and exposure to air pollution should not be overlooked”.
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