By: 17 September 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 scientists at Cardiff and Cambridge universities.

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.

Prof Lawrence Wilkinson et al examined the behaviour of adult mice with a malfunctioned supply of a vital hormone, achieved by damaging the Insulin-like growth factor-2 hormone. This led to an imbalanced supply of nutrients to the foetus and a long-term anxiety was observed in the adult individuals as well as specific changes in brain gene expression.

The authors consider that what they call ‘placental-programming’ of adult behaviour and a possible vulnerability to brain and mental health disorders, may be affected and established much earlier than previously thought.