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Offspring Of Pregnant Women Exposed To Terrorism More Likely To Develop Schizophrenia
Israeli soldier is comforted at the site of a vehicle-ramming attack in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Offspring Of Pregnant Women Exposed To Terrorism More Likely To Develop Schizophrenia

Comprehensive Israeli study shows even indirect trauma can have effect on future mental health of unborn children

Children born to mothers exposed in any way to terrorism during their pregnancy are 2.5 times more likely to develop schizophrenia, according to a comprehensive Israeli study. Researchers at Haifa University found that the “psychosocial stress of terror attacks in [pregnant] mothers” greatly increases the risk of offspring developing the mental disease later in life.

The study, published in the journal of Schizophrenia Research, was conducted in conjunction with members of the Department of Information and Evaluation in the Israeli Ministry of Health.

“Some research has shown that other maternal stressors [such as natural disasters] are a risk factor for neuro-developmental disorders,” Professor Stephen Levine, one of the authors of the study, explained to The Media Line. “Regarding indirect exposure to the stress of terror, research has shown that Dutch neonates who were in utero at the time of the 9/11 attacks were at risk of lower birth-weight, despite the geographic distance between the Netherlands and the United States.”

When asked whether watching the news or reading articles could also have an effect, Dr. Levine said that the study did not specifically examine this issue before qualifying that, “exposure to terror can be through word of mouth or friends and acquaintances or media.”

Professor Itzhak Levav, who also partook in the research project, reinforced the notion that even indirect exposure to a traumatic event might affect fetal development. “You may not be at the site [in question], but if your spouse, your boyfriend or your son is exposed, you might suffer the consequences of the terror [attack],” he told The Media Line.

“For many decades, schizophrenia was thought to be organic and that the factors were genetic, but here [with this research] we’ve shown environmental factors—indeed powerful ones—can [also] have an impact.”

Prof. Levav noted that the exposure to terrorism could also lead to other developmental illnesses, although these would be more difficult to measure.

“In Israel we have an excellent database of people who were admitted to mental hospitals and to psychiatric units,” Dr. Levav related to The Media Line, adding that this is where most of the data was culled from. However, he stressed, “someone who has depression might not get admitted” and therefore it would be impossible to know the exact rate of incidence.

During the two-decade period when the research was conducted—from 1975-1995—782 terror attacks were perpetrated in Israel on 622 separate days, according to the study. A mother was defined as having been “exposed to terror” if an attack occurred during her pregnancy.

Of the 3,257 children who were born to these mothers, 0.64% were diagnosed with schizophrenia. By contrast, in a control group of 197,791 children born to mothers who were not exposed to terrorism, 0.25% were diagnosed with the same mental illness.

“Maternal exposure to terror in pregnancy may damage the fetus’s immune system, leading to an increase in the level of glucocorticoid hormones and disrupting the development of the brain,” Prof. Levine concluded.

“[We are conducting] a series of studies on the impact of exposure to adverse maternal stress during pregnancy and adverse outcomes in the offspring.”

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