How does a history of childhood adversity impact a person’s pregnancy risk and their infant’s birth outcomes?

Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) psychology and neuroscience professor Dr. Jennifer Khoury hopes to gain insight into these and related questions through a new research study examining the intergenerational effects of childhood adversity. 

“We know that parental experiences of abuse and neglect and adversity in childhood have lifelong implications for them and their child,” Khoury said in an interview. 

Existing research suggests that 33% of adults in Nova Scotia have experienced maltreatment as a child. This includes child abuse, neglect, and exposure to intimate partner violence. 

“It’s a problem with far-reaching public health implications. In fact, childhood maltreatment often has significant and lifelong effects on health, which span across generations,” noted an MSVU media release.

‘Reduce the impact’

The new study, The Impact of Early Life Experiences on Prenatal and Postpartum Health, will include an examination of the perinatal period, a time Khoury described as crucial for a child’s health and development later in life.

“I want to prevent child mental health problems. I want to reduce the impact. And I think where our health care system is going, the most impact that we can have is on those early years,” she said. 

“It’s working with the parent before the child is even born to help them to improve their health and their mental health, because we know that that has an impact on fetal development and on infant development.” 

A smiling woman with dark curly hair, glasses, and a black shirt and grey blazer stands outside in front of green shrubbery.
Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) professor Dr. Jennifer Khoury. Credit: Contributed

Khoury and her team will follow 125 pregnant Nova Scotians from late in their third trimesters and then check in with them and their infants until six months after birth. 

Answers in the hair

In addition to filling out questionnaires, study participants have the option of providing their own hair and saliva samples before and after giving birth. They can also choose to provide samples from their infants. 

Those samples will be used to measure cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone), immune function, and indicators of cellular aging.

Khoury described the study as unique because of its “comprehensive biomedical, social approach.” 

While much is known about how cortisol functions and the detrimental role prolonged stress and cortisol can have on fetal development, Khoury is also looking at longer term cortisol markers. 

Instead of only measuring cortisol in blood or saliva, researchers will obtain hair samples from participants. Khoury said these samples (cut from the head, not pulled) yields different results than saliva. 

“I always like to give the example that cortisol in your saliva tells me how stressed you are around the last 20 to 40 minutes,” she said. 

“Cortisol in hair is so different. It actually accumulates over months in time, and so it can give us a retrospective window into how much cortisol has accumulated in your hair.”

Drawing connections

Khoury said because of this, hair samples provide insight into how much stress a person has experienced over the last three months of a pregnancy. 

“There’s a potential there to have a more pronounced impact on infant outcomes and on the development of the infant stress response system,” she explained. 

Khoury stressed that “nothing is set in stone.” The fact that someone experiences stress during pregnancy doesn’t mean they’re destined to have a child with adverse birth outcomes or poor infant outcomes.

“That’s not the case at all. There are all these other kinds of factors, which is really what we’re trying to get at with the study,” Khoury said.

“We’re looking at these biological risk factors but we’re also looking at these resilience factors as well.”

The study will also examine different markers of immune functioning in saliva. This includes inflammation, which Khoury said can be a “huge indicator” of health and disease in parents and infants.

“We’re measuring hair as well as saliva in the infants and the moms in the postpartum period so that we can draw that connection either between the prenatal and the postpartum or between the postpartum parent and infant,” Khoury said. 

Investing in prevention

There are 51 people currently enrolled in the study. Khoury and her team are looking to recruit another 76 people.

Participants must be Nova Scotia residents, able to read and write in English, live a reasonable distance from Halifax, be expecting a singleton pregnancy (one baby), and are less than 35 weeks pregnant. 

“You don’t have to have experienced childhood adversity,” Khoury said. “We’re trying to get a range of individuals in the study, so that isn’t a requirement necessarily.”

Anyone who fits the eligibility criteria and is interested can learn more here.

Khoury hopes the study gives researchers a better understanding of the social, mental and physical health needs of pregnant people who’ve experienced childhood adversity and their infants.

She said this will help inform interventions and supports for Nova Scotian families and reduce the intergenerational consequences of childhood adversity . 

“In Nova Scotia in particular, if we can show that this is impacting a lot of parents, if we can show that it’s potentially having an impact on birth outcomes, on infant stress development, then we have reason to invest in early assessment, to invest in prevention, so that we can limit the health burden across these kids life spans at an early stage,” she said. 

“And that really would begin with investing in prenatal health.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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