Medicine: Old Wives' Tale Confirmed?

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Old Wives' Tale Confirmed

Worldwide superstition long decreed that almost all abnormalities in newborn children—from port-wine stain to the absence of a limb—were the result of shock suffered by the mother during pregnancy. Medical science seemed to demolish these old wives' tales, but now, as a result of exact, deductive reasoning, it is coming to believe that in some few cases, at least, the old wives were right.

Not only overt illness or accident, but the intangible factor of emotional stress suffered by a woman between the eighth and twelfth weeks of pregnancy may be a precipitating factor in causing harelip and cleft-palate defects, two New Jersey researchers report in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Drs. Lyon P. Strean and Lyndon A. Peer studied 228 cases of cleft palate at Newark's Hospital of St. Barnabas, 40% among first-born children. Going back over the mothers' experiences during the critical weeks of pregnancy—when the two halves of the upper jaw normally fuse in the palatal arch—the doctors found that 23% had been ill or injured, and no less than 68% recalled emotional disturbances. Notable among these were a death in the family, loss of a job, marital incompatibility, worry because of a previous miscarriage; 19% had "morning sickness" with vomiting. Drs. Strean and Peer reason that severe emotional disturbance, of whatever kind, stimulates the adrenal glands to pump out extra hydrocortisone; this checks the formation of connective tissue between the two sides of the palate or may actually dissolve tissue already formed. The high incidence of cleft palates among first-born they explain on the ground that first pregnancies usually involve more stress.

In support of their thesis, the researchers pumped cortisone into female mice at the corresponding stage in gestation, when the palates of the embryos were forming, and produced clefts in 87%. Then they tried counteracting the hormone with vitamins B6, B12 and C. Thus protected, mouse mothers produced young with normal palates. Other defects often seen in the newborn that may result from the same sort of stress, the doctors suggest, are absence of a collarbone or forearm bone, displacement of the heart, Mongolism (TIME. Aug. 13) and water on the brain. But confirmation of this theory and of the protective effect of vitamins must await further research.