Climate change certainly poses many serious health risks, and experts are warning that these risks may extend to mental health as well. Scientists are starting to believe that the stress and depression pregnant mothers feel as a result of extreme weather conditions may be passed down to their unborn baby.
It's called epigenetics, the study of how environmental and other external factors can cause genetic changes in utero. According to Patrizia Casaccia, director of the neuroscience initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York, effects of extreme climate change and natural disasters might not be short-term.
"They could have long-term consequences on the developing brain by changing the way genes are regulated and resulting in increased susceptibility to psychiatric disorders," she said.
When Superstorm Sandy hit New York in 2012, Yoko Nomura, a psychology professor with CUNY’s graduate center and Queens College, decided to find out if some of the pregnant women who were displaced by the storm passed down the stress and depression they experienced to their babies. Conveniently, many of these women were already part of a concurrent study she was leading on pregnancy and stress.
This particular study looked at 310 pairs of mothers and children across New York City. Researchers first assessed the symptoms of depression in mothers, and in turn, those mothers reported the temperaments of their infants six months after they were born. Nomura and her colleagues found that children who were born to mothers suffering from prenatal depression were more likely to be fearful and distressed - they smiled and laughed less, were less easily soothed and cuddled less than those who were born to mothers who weren't depressed.
The results from those women who were pregnant during Sandy were even worse.
"Our research found that, compared to other babies, infants born to women who were prenatally depressed and pregnant during Superstorm Sandy had higher rates of distress," said Nomura.
Jessica Buthmann, a co-author of the study, believes that the combination of environmental stressors and biology "compromise gene expression and cause an excessive amount of cortisol to be passed from the mother to the fetus" - which could explain why those infants have poorer emotional regulation and fearfulness.
A follow-up study on the children born to clinically depressed mothers who were pregnant during Sandy is currently underway. Preliminary results are already showing that these children - now almost seven - are more fearful, become ‘overloaded’ with stimuli, and have a harder time recovering from small stresses in everyday life.
To combat this, Nomura believes that increased measures need to be taken to monitor at-risk mothers during future extreme climate events.
"We may need to invest resources in helping pregnant women be more resilient when they are exposed to climate change and other hardships beyond their control," she said.