Winter 2009: Of Note

A preterm baby

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New link to preterm births?

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By Mary J. Loftus

The hope is that health will improve with each new generation, but the rate of preterm births actually has increased in the U.S. during the past twenty years.

Pinpointing the reason for this increase is difficult because there are so many different causes of pre-term delivery, says Brad Pearce, who holds faculty appointments in both psychology and epidemiology.

Expectant mothers with severe psychological stress appear to be at special risk.

“It is widely assumed that pregnancy is a time of well-being,” Pearce says. “In reality, depression is as common during pregnancy as outside of pregnancy. There seems to be an intimate relationship between the molecules that regulate when a child is born, and those that regulate mood and anxiety.”

Pearce studies key chemical mediators in the blood that might link psychological illness in expectant mothers—such as depression—with premature birth. He and colleagues doing similar work are members of the Emory Preterm Research International Center of Excellence (PRICE).

PRICE, founded by research professor Poul Thorsen, is an interdisciplinary center that studies the phenomenon of preterm deliveries.

Infants born before thirty-seven weeks have higher rates of both neonatal death and long-term impairment.

In a recent study, Pearce found that a molecule called macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) was increased in the blood of pregnant women months prior to having a preterm delivery. Interestingly, this molecule was also higher in mothers who engaged in risky behavior, such as smoking or failing to wear seat belts.

The more that can be discovered about the factors that cause preterm deliveries, says Pearce, the better the chance to prevent them.

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