Book review: Origins: How the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives

This brief book review by Michael Sargent was first published in the 2011/2012 Mill Hill Essays.

The starting point of Origins is the notion that biomedical scientists in the mid-20th century were reluctant to believe that a foetus is irreversibly affected by pre-birth experiences. The sensitivity of the developing embryo to many exterior influences is now abundantly clear. The author reminds us of a time when medical interventions on pregnant women were initiated without reference to any “precautionary principle”, with devastating consequences in the thalidomide and diethylstilbestrol scandals. A radical change in perceptions came about through the analysis of health-records of people conceived in nutritionally-challenging periods. These provided startling evidence that malnutrition during pregnancy could affect lifespan and could cause premature onset of age-related diseases (type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease). Apart from quite subtle effects (such as being slightly under-weight at term) such babies grow to adulthood completely normally. Experiments with animals show that the foetus responds to poor nutrition by scaling-down visceral organs relative to the brain. The foetus also diverts resources to fat deposits that can be mobilized after birth when food is scarce, but these deposits may be the start of obesity in later life. Recent investigations show that the developing foetus is also sensitive to severe psychological stress – such as the 9/11 catastrophe, Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes etc. These are transmitted to the foetus by the stress hormone cortisol and are recorded in the genome in a way that irreversibly affects the development of temperament, cognitive and language skills, birth weight and even mental health. Written for a general readership, this book aims to engage readers in the enormity of the issue without excessive detail. However enthusiasts need not feel deprived; the footnotes are full of relevant information.

Origins: How the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives, by Annie Murphy Paul is published by Free Press/Hay House, 2010.

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