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Researchers investigate prenatal smoking link with anti-social behaviour in children

02 February 2009

A Cardiff University research project has for the first time studied whether smoking during pregnancy can directly make children more likely to behave anti-socially.

The unique study by scientists at the University’s Schools of Medicine and Psychology examined the records of 779 children born by in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) whose prenatal environment was provided by either a related mother or an unrelated mother. They found a link between anti-social behaviour in children whose mothers smoked in pregnancy - but only when the mother was genetically linked to the child.

When the child came from a donated egg and donated embryo - egg or embryo donation or surrogacy - there was no link, suggesting factors other than smoking during pregnancy influence anti-social behaviour.

The results of the study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, are published today (Tuesday 3 February 2009) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It is well-established that smoking during pregnancy, whether the mother is genetically related to the baby or not has an adverse effect on birth weight. However, links between what mothers do in pregnancy and how it may affect the mental health and behaviour of children are less researched. While mothers who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to have anti-social children, it has not been clear if this is a direct result of the smoking. The Cardiff University researchers were able to study IVF children, with differing degrees of genetic relation to their parents, to disentangle the effects of genetic influences and the prenatal environment.

The study is the first study of its kind in the world to allow these effects to be separated. In the published paper, the researchers looked at effects of mother’s smoking in pregnancy on the child’s birth weight and the child’s behaviour, paying particular attention to mothers not genetically related to their unborn baby.

Professor Anita Thapar, clinical child psychiatrist and Principal Investigator on the study said: "What we have been able to confirm is that cigarette smoke in pregnancy does lower birth weight regardless of whether the mother and child are genetically related or not, but the link with children’s behaviour is different. It is now clear that offspring anti-social behaviour is more dependent on inherited factors passed from mother to child, as our group of children with mothers who smoked during pregnancy with no direct genetic link showed no increased signs of anti-social behaviour. This suggests that other influencing factors such as the mother’s personality traits and other inherited characteristics are at play during the development of a baby."

Professor Thapar, who is based in the School of Medicine’s Department of Psychological Medicine and Neurosciences and Mental Health Interdisciplinary Research Group worked with Dr Frances Rice (first author) and Professor Gordon Harold along with other researchers from the School of Psychology. She believes this unique approach opens the way to tease apart the effect of genes and environment on a variety of other conditions in the future and has significant policy implications. She said: "This type of research is able to tell us what sorts of interventions in pregnancy are the right ones to focus on in order to improve the physical and mental health of children."

- Ends -

Notes to editors

About the study

This research is published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, week of February 2, 2009 under the title "Disentangling prenatal and inherited influences in humans with an experimental design".

The other Cardiff University authors of the paper are: Dr Frances Rice, formerly School of Medicine, Cardiff University; Professor Gordon Harold, formerly School of Psychology; Dr Jacky Boivin, School of Psychology; Professor Dale Hay, School of Psychology, Dr Marianne van den Bree, School of Medicine.

The Study received £125,000 from a Wellcome Trust Showcase Award for novel research, and a further £385,000 Project Grant to conduct the study.

The Department of Psychological Medicine and Neurosciences and Mental Health Interdisciplinary Research Group was ranked joint first in the UK in terms of research of international excellence in the recent RAE.

Cardiff School of Medicine

Cardiff University’s School of Medicine is a significant contributor to healthcare in Wales, a major provider of professional staff for the National Health Service and an international centre of excellence for research delivering substantial health benefits locally and internationally. The School is an international leader in basic and clinically applied research activities. School of Medicine researchers annually win tens of millions of pounds in research awards to work with Government, the healthcare industries and the charitable sector on the most pressing issues of human health.

About Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Visit the University website at: www.cardiff.ac.uk

About the School of Psychology

The School of Psychology at Cardiff is one of the largest departments of psychology in the United Kingdom. There are currently over 50 academic staff, 100+ research staff and a further 20+ Research Fellows (including Royal Society, BBSRC, ESRC, Leverhulme Trust and British Academy Research Fellows). The School also has over 120 full-time students studying for Doctorates, both in research and on our professional Doctorate programmes. Each year it admits around 200 students to the Undergraduate degree programmes in Psychology and Psychology with Professional Placement. The general resources in the School are excellent and the provision of equipment is second to none. The School’s strengths are aligned with six themes which encompass the range of research interests in the School and reflect the commitment to studying psychology from a scientific perspective whilst covering topics from synapse to society: Behavioural Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, Health and Mental Health, Perception and Performance, Social and Developmental Psychology.

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing. www.wellcome.ac.uk

For more information about the research, contact:

Lowri Jones

Email: JonesLC3@cardiff.ac.uk

Telephone: 029 2087 0995
Extension: 70995

 

Lowri Jones_thumbLowri has a BA in Sociology and a Masters in Marketing. Lowri began her career as a PR consultant in the north east of England. On moving back to Wales, she worked for some of Wales’ leading public relations consultancies, directing PR campaigns for public, private and third sector organisations. Lowri moved in-house at Cardiff University in 2007 originally as part of the Public Relations Team, taking up the post of Public Affairs Manager in 2010.

Main Areas Of Responsibility
 
  • Development and implementation of the University’s public affairs strategy to enhance the University’s profile, reputation and relationships with political stakeholders in Welsh Government, National Assembly for Wales, Westminster, Whitehall and the wider policy community
  • Internal ambassadors programme
  • Coordination and arrangements of key political events and visits by political stakeholders and other VIPs
  • Political briefings and monitoring