Epigenesis: Another Reason to Blame Mom?

Women have long been held accountable, sometimes to an alarming and inaccurate extent, for the health and well-being of their offspring. Media coverage of scientific research, especially when condensed to a sound byte, often seems to support this accountability.

‘Mother’s diet during pregnancy alters baby’s DNA'(BBC),

‘Pregnant 9/11 survivors transmitted trauma to their children’ (The Guardian).

The latest pop science fad, epigenetics, also appears to blame the mother for much of a child’s health and development. However, is this fair? Is this even accurate?

What Is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of traits that result from changes to a chromosome without altering the DNA sequence (Berger, S.L., Kouzarides, T., Shiekhattar, R., & Shilatifard, A. (2009). “An operational definition of epigenetics”. Genes & Development, 23: 781-783. Retrieved ). Research has found that genes can be switched on or off by a variety of mechanisms, such as methylation. Many of these switches are flipped on or off during the earliest periods in development: pregnancy.

As more and more traits are attributed to epigenesis and inheritance, from diabetes to cancer risk to personality to homosexuality, mothers are increasingly being scrutinized for the way even their smallest decisions affect their offspring. Indulge pregnancy cravings? Your baby might get cancer! Catch a flu? Your child could be bipolar! Is epigenetics really a blame game? Or is the media, once again, looking for ways to stoke the flames of the mommy wars?

The Roots of Maternal Blame

This age of epigenetics is not the first time that mothers have been blamed for factors that are more or less out of their control.

Mothers in the early through mid twentieth century were blamed for being too cold and causing a range of mental illnesses from autism to schizophrenia, which are now known to have a biochemical origin (Kanner L (1943). “Autistic disturbances of affective contact“. Nerv Child 2: 217–50. Reprinted in Kanner, L (1968). Acta Paedopsychiatr 35 (4): 100–36.).
Similarly, mothers were later discovered to be the cause of the syndrome now known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Historically, the mother is assumed to be the source of both a child’s nature and nurture until proven otherwise. While maternal health and mothering are both important to child development, they are not the only factors in a child’s development.

Misrepresentations of Research in Epigenesis

Much of the problems with mother-blaming in epigenetics are a result of reporting mere sound bytes from complicated studies. For example, a 2012 study found that the second generation offspring, or grandchildren, of rodents eating a high fat diet had an 80% risk of developing cancer (Richardson et al, 2014). Headlines were dire:

“Why should worry about grandma’s eating habits,”

and similar scare tactics.

However, when the full study is examined, a more nuanced perspective appears. The rats were bred to have a higher rate of developing cancer, and positive health effects were shown in the third generation of offspring from the fat-craving pregnant rat. In short, there is little cause to blame mothers and grandmothers for cancer, as the popular media seemed to suggest.

What About the Dad?

While epigenesis in the womb is being studied and reported intensively, there is little media interest in a father’s role. Recent research has found the diet and health of a father at the time his body creates sperm can influence offspring’s chance of diverse factors such as heart disease and mental illness. Why aren’t these findings as aggressively reported as similar ones pertaining to the mother? People seem less interested overall in blaming a father when the historical target is female.

How to Avoid Blaming the Mother in Epigenesis Reporting

There are a few ways that the media can fairly report the epigenesis of health and disease. Best not to oversimplify. The international weekly of science on Nature.com had a great article on this same topic. Most studies are more complex than headlines suggest and involve non-human subjects with a variety of mitigating factors. And, discuss the roles of both mothers and father in epigenesis. Third, examine confounding factors such as culture and economics. This is not revolutionary, but rather good science reporting

Epigenesis is a complex and interesting topic that is becoming increasingly studied. The media can and should choose to report study findings in a way that doesn’t unfairly blame women and mothers.
Enrique Simonet – La autopsia – 1890 by Enrique Simonet. Under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

April 23,2015  |