Thanks to some new research, we now know that a regular smoking habit can actually cause a lot more damage than we once thought, especially in pregnant women. This study showed how pregnant smokers can actually hurt their unborn child by changing it's DNA for the worse. This DNA manipulation might explain why some children of smokers have more health problems later on in life compared to their counterparts.
It has been documented that children of smoking mothers are typically smaller at birth, have impaired lung function, and have a higher risk of other, more serious birth defects. As these children grow up to into adulthood, this group might experience more health and behavior problems. You'll find a greater rate of asthma, their own nicotine addictions, and other substance abuse problems. Christina Markunas is a genetic epidemiologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. She and her colleague, Allen Wilcox, a perinatal epidemiologist at the same institute, wrote that they “have a limited understanding of the biological mechanisms for such effects,” but thanks to this type of research, we can see how this might be caused by something called epigenetic changes. This means that there could be various environmental triggers, like stress levels, and even a person's diet, that can actually modify a person's DNA. These triggers can even turn certain genes on and off.
The results of this new study, one of the largest ever of its kind, was shocking when it came to the impact that smoking mothers have on their child's DNA. The researchers collected blood samples from 889 infants right after birth. About one-third of these children were born to smoking mothers based on a self-reported behavior questionnaire from their first trimester. The researchers analyzed these blood samples and looked for a specific group of chemical tags called methyl groups. These tags are known to modify and manipulate DNA through epigenetic changes. They found that children born to smoking mothers showed epigenetic changes to their DNA. There were more than 100 gene regions altered in these babies. These regions were linked to fetal development, nicotine addiction, and the ability to quit smoking. These DNA changes were not present in the children of nonsmokers. This study lays down some really strong evidence of the ways a mother's behaviors can really affect their baby's development in the womb.
Andrea Baccarelli is the director of Harvard University’s environmental epigenetics lab. He agreed with the findings and said they supported older research from smaller studies on the ways that smoking may alter a newborn’s DNA. He stated “It is a wonderful example of convergence between toxicology studies and human studies.”
We can learn a lot from this research, but there are also several questions that remain to be answered such as, do these detected epigenetic changes stick with the person for life, or can they be fixed with healthy lifestyle choices? Valerie Knopik is a behavioral geneticist of Rhode Island Hospital in Providence and Brown University’s Alpert Medical School. She said “There is no way to tell whether these epigenetic modifications are fleeting and part of regular cell development or more permanent and truly a result of smoke exposure.”
One thing is for sure, more research is needed to fully understand the implications of the DNA changes observed in infants. However, these findings should also open the door to answering other questions regarding children’s health and how other things can affect unborn babies.
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