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Using Natural Disasters to Study the Effects of Prenatal Maternal Stress on Child Health and Development

Authors

  • Suzanne King,

    Corresponding author
    1. Douglas Hospital Research Centre, Psychosocial Research Division, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
    • Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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  • Kelsey Dancause,

    1. Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
    2. Douglas Hospital Research Centre, Psychosocial Research Division, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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  • Anne-Marie Turcotte-Tremblay,

    1. Global Health Research Capacity Strengthening Program, University of Montreal, Hospital Research Centre (CRCHUM), Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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  • Franz Veru,

    1. Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
    2. Douglas Hospital Research Centre, Psychosocial Research Division, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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  • David P. Laplante

    1. Douglas Hospital Research Centre, Psychosocial Research Division, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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Correspondence to: Dr. Suzanne King, Douglas Hospital Research Centre, Psychosocial Research Unit, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, 6875 LaSalle Blvd., Verdun, Quebec H4H 1R3, Canada. E-mail: suzanne.king@mcgill.ca

Abstract

Research on the developmental origins of health and disease highlights the plasticity of the human fetus to a host of potential teratogens. Experimental research on laboratory animals has demonstrated a variety of physical and behavioral effects among offspring exposed to prenatal maternal stress (PNMS). However, these studies cannot elucidate the relative effects of the objective stress exposure and the subjective distress in a way that would parallel the stress experience in humans. PNMS research with humans is also limited because there are ethical challenges to designing studies that involve the random assignment of pregnant women to varying levels of independent stressors. Natural disasters present opportunities for natural experiments of the effects of pregnant women's exposure to stress on child development. In this review, we present an overview of the human and animal research on PNMS, and highlight the results of Project Ice Storm which has been following the cognitive, behavioral, motor and physical development of children exposed in utero to the January 1998 Quebec Ice Storm. We have found that both objective degree of exposure to the storm and the mothers' subjective distress have strong and persistent effects on child development, and that these effects are often moderated by the timing of the ice storm in pregnancy and by the child's sex. Birth Defects Research (Part C) 96:273–288, 2012. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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