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Adult behaviour triggered in the womb?

6 August 2013


Adults could be at greater risk of becoming anxious and vulnerable to poor mental health if they were deprived of certain hormones while developing in the womb, according to new research by University scientists.

New research in mice has revealed the role of the placenta in long-term programming of emotional behaviour and the first time scientists have linked changes in adult behaviour to alterations in placental function.

Insulin-like growth factor-2 has been shown to play a major role in foetal and placental development in mammals, and changes in expression of this hormone in the placenta and foetus are implicated in growth restriction in the womb.

"The growth of a baby is a very complex process and there are lots of control mechanisms which make sure that the nutrients required by the baby to grow can be supplied by the mother," according to, Dr Trevor Humby, a behavioural neuroscientist in the Schools of Psychology and Medicine, who jointly led the research with Professor Lawrence Wilkinson.

"We were interested in how disrupting this balance could influence emotional behaviours a long time after being born, as an adult," he added.

In order to explore how a mis-match between supply and demand of certain nutrients might affect humans, Dr Trevor Humby and Professor Wilkinson and their colleagues Mikael Mikaelsson, Claire Dent and Dr Miguel Constancia of Cambridge University, examined the behaviour of adult mice with a malfunctioned supply of a vital hormone.

Dr Humby adds: "We achieved this by damaging a hormone called Insulin-like growth factor-2, important for controlling growth in the womb. What we found when we did this was an imbalance in the supply of nutrients controlled by the placenta, and that this imbalance had major effects on how subjects were during adulthood – namely, that subject became more anxious later in life.

"These symptoms were accompanied by specific changes in brain gene expression related to this type of behaviour. This is the first example of what we have termed 'placental-programming' of adult behaviour. We do not know exactly how these very early life events can cause long-range effects on our emotional predispositions, but we suspect that our research findings may indicate that the seeds of our behaviour, and possibly vulnerability to brain and mental health disorders, are sown much earlier than previously thought."

Further studies are planned to investigate the brain mechanisms linking early life events, placental dysfunction and the emotional state of adults.

'Placental programming of anxiety in adulthood revealed by Igf2-null models' is published today (16:00 (GMT) Tuesday 6th August 2013) inNature Communications.

Research was funded by Cardiff University LINK funding.