What's It Like in the Womb? Check Your Newborn's Hair

A while back I was intrigued by a new area of research that delved into what effect the environment of the womb had on a fetus.  It had an unusual name, fetal origins, and it was built around how the first nine months of a fetus' life -- and its interactions with its mother before it's born -- has a huge impact on its life.

I didn't hear much more about it until today, when I came across a story at newswise.com about how hair from a newborn can tell a lot about what went on in the womb, while it was "hatching."

"It can tell if a person recently used drugs or an athlete was doping. It can provide information about hormones and expose environmental toxins," the Web site reports. "It can also reveal the womb environment in which an infant formed."

Why care?  As I found out earlier, a mother's uterus affects which genes are turned on in the fetus, and how the first nine months of your life shape the rest of it is now becoming more and more an important factor of how your health may shake out over your lifetime.  

“We had this ‘Aha!’ realization that we could use hair in newborns, because it starts growing one to two months before birth,” newswise quotes Christopher Coe, UW-Madison professor of psychology and director of the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology. “It provides a glimpse of the prenatal hormone environment.”
Hair closest to the scalp reveals the most recent information but moving down the shaft effectively transits an individual’s hormonal timeline. All tests were conducted on rhesus monkeys, similar in genetic make-up to humans.
Of course, any drugs a mother uses play a role in the development a fetus. Prior studies have shown high levels of cortisol and drugs that act like it can have a lasting impact on the developing brain, including impairment in reflexes and attention, and an increased incidence of emotional and learning problems.
Babies born to young mothers also had higher levels of a form of estrogen and testosterone in their hair than did babies born to older mothers. Levels of both these hormones were surprisingly similar between male and female infants.Scientists were particularly interested in whether these differences have an impact on “maleness and femaleness” of the babies: whether higher exposure to these steroid hormones during fetal development leads to more pronounced gender differences in behavior later in life.
Additionally, what happens to a developing fetus, how much stress it's exposed to, while in the womb may affect its risk for chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, metabolic disease, coronary artery disease, psychiatric disorders, later in life, say researchers.  
Most important of all, scientists now believe a "developing fetus may be 'programmed' in response to the womb environment.


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