Wednesday, May 4, 2005

A hospital study has determined the smallest victims of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Pregnant women who escaped the burning Twin Towers almost four years ago passed on the stress of the experience to their unborn babies in a “ripple effect,” according to findings released by New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital yesterday.

Researchers followed 38 expectant mothers who had been present during the attack to determine whether they showed any signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), measuring the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.

According to the study, reduced levels of the hormone cortisol, one marker that measures PTSD, indicates a person is “linked with vulnerability” to the disorder.

Those Trade Center mothers who developed anxiety and other symptoms in response to their experiences had markedly lower levels of cortisol compared with mothers who developed only minimal symptoms, the researchers say.

The same pattern was found in their infants.

“The findings suggest that mechanisms for transgenerational transmission of biological effects of trauma may have to do with very early parent-child attachments, and possibly even in utero effects,” said Rachel Yehuda, lead investigator and a psychologist who specializes in combat-related stress disorders.

Reduced cortisol levels also have been found in the children of Holocaust survivors. But previous studies attributed the phenomenon to lifestyle factors — experiencing “vicarious traumatization” after hearing horrific stories or perhaps growing up with a parent who was depressed or fearful.

In the case of the September 11 mothers, the babies were far too young to comprehend or identify with their mother’s anxiety, yet the physical markers were present nonetheless.

“The data suggest that the effects of maternal PTSD related to cortisol can be observed very early in the life of the offspring and underscore the relevance of in utero contributors to putative biological risk for PTSD,” the study concludes.

The study was released yesterday and published by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

The research is part of an ongoing study the hospital is conducting with the Columbia University Center for Children’s Health, tracking the health of almost 200 pregnant women who survived or were in close proximity of the World Trade Center attacks.

Last year, the researchers found that the women’s babies generally were born earlier, weighed less and were smaller than infants delivered by other Manhattan women. They attributed the phenomenon to toxic dust and fumes from the site, which included lead and poisonous hydrocarbons.

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