Studying Maternal Stress

By Stuart Wolpert

 

Through their research with women and children, UCLA scientists are homing in on some of the great mysteries of life and some of society’s most pressing concerns.

One example: the question of why some people age faster than others.

A potential answer, a recent study indicates, is that a mother’s stress prior to giving birth may accelerate her child’s biological aging.

Researchers found evidence that maternal stress adversely affects the length of a baby’s telomeres — the small pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that act as protective caps, like the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shortened telomeres have been linked to a higher risk of cancers, cardiovascular and other diseases, and earlier death. The findings are reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“Research on aging is beginning to identify some factors that might put a person on an accelerated aging path, potentially leading to diseases of aging such as metabolic disorder and cardiovascular disease much earlier in life than would be expected,” said the study’s lead author, Judith Carroll, an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.

While several studies have reported that telomere length is shorter in newborns whose mothers reported high stress during pregnancy, this study also measured maternal stress prior to conception and then, once women were pregnant, the researchers followed up in the second and third trimesters. Their analyses identified the third trimester as an especially important period — but not earlier — during which children are at higher risk for shortened telomeres.

Christine Dunkel Schetter, a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry and senior author of the study, said the findings support the case for devoting more resources to screening and treatment programs for preconception health and well-being.

The research team followed 111 mothers living in North Carolina, Illinois and Washington, D.C., from preconception until their children reached early childhood. Between the ages of 3 and 5, the children provided cell samples from inside their cheeks, from which the researchers extracted DNA that was used to measure telomeres. They were then able to test for associations of childhood telomere length with the mothers’ stress levels when the children were in utero.

Carroll said, “We see evidence into childhood that telomere length continues to be shorter in those children exposed in utero to maternal stress.

“How does maternal stress alter cellular aging?”

We know that stress can activate inflammation and metabolic activity, both of which, in high amounts, can damage DNA,” Carroll said. “Telomeres are vulnerable to damage and, if unrepaired before cell division, they can become shortened by this damage. During in utero development, we know there is rapid cell replication, and we suspect there is increased vulnerability to damage during this time.”

High maternal stress oftenleads to preterm births

A second UCLA-led study from the same research group found that women suffering from high stress — defined as feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope — during the months and even years before conception had shorter pregnancies than other women. Women who experienced the highest levels of stress gave birth to infants whose time in utero was shorter by one week or more.

“Every day in the womb is important to fetal growth and development,” said Dunkel Schetter. “Premature infants have higher risk of adverse outcomes at birth and later in life than babies born later, including developmental disabilities and physical health problems.”

Dunkel Schetter, who heads the Stress Processes and Pregnancy Lab, which conducted the studies, noted premature birth rates are unusually high in the U.S., compared with other nations with similar resources, and low-income and African American women have higher rates of preterm birth.

“Preventing preterm birth, with its adverse consequences for mothers and children worldwide and in the U.S., is a top priority,” she said.

These results, published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, are based on extensive in-home interviews with 360 mothers, many of whom live near or below the poverty level. In addition to collecting data on these women’s general stress levels, the interviewers obtained information about various types of environmental stress, including financial worries, job loss, a lack of food, chronic relationship troubles, parenting challenges, interpersonal vi0lence and discrimination.

The researchers found that women who were exposed to the lowest or highest amounts of stress in their environment had the shortest pregnancies, while women who had a moderate level of environmental stress before conception had the longest pregnancies.

“Women exposed to moderate stressors in their environment may have developed coping strategies that serve them well both before and during pregnancy, while exposure to more severe stress challenges even women who normally cope very effectively,” said lead author Nicole Mahrer, who conducted the research as a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in health psychology and is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of La Verne. She is also a co-author of the other study.

A moderate amount of stress prior to the pregnancy may also help prepare the developing fetus for the environment to come, Mahrer said.

“What we have not known until now,” Dunkel Schetter said, “is whether a mother’s psychosocial health before conception matters for her birth out-comes. This study is among the first to point out that, yes, it does matter. It may even be more influential than prenatal health because some of what is put in motion before conception may be hard to stop during pregnancy. For example, a mother with dysregulated immune function due to stress may be at risk when she becomes pregnant.”

 

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A photo of a member of the humanitarian search-and-rescue group Águilas del Desierto.

Professor’s Award-Winning Documentary on Migration

 

By Alison Hewitt

 

When UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre decided to make a documentary about volunteers who search for the remains of migrants in the desert spanning the U.S.-Mexico border, she wanted people to see what she believes has become invisible: not just the deaths, but how ignoring them enables policies that lead to even more deaths.

Now she’s helped bring that hidden reality to light. Her 14-minute film Águilas, co-directed with Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, won the SXSW Documentary Short Jury Award and the Best Mini-Doc award at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

The film garnering all this interest took shape when Zubiaurre, a professor of European languages and transcultural studies, and of Spanish and Portuguese, approached Guevara-Flanagan with the idea of highlighting the work of Águilas del Desierto (Desert Eagles), a humanitarian search-and-rescue group that scours the Arizona desert on weekends, looking for those reported missing. The documentary follows the volunteers on one of their searches.

Zubiaurre, who also co-leads the College’s Urban Humanities Initiative, spoke with UCLA College Magazine about the film and her concept of “forensic empathy,” which centers on consciousness-raising activism and compassion-triggering artistic practices around migrant suffering and death. Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: It’s clear that you are very moved and inspired by the work of Águilas del Desierto. Who are they?

A: They’re a group of volunteers from San Diego. At least once a month, they search for missing migrants to bring families some sort of closure. The weekend that we filmed the documentary, we found six bodies, all skeletal remains.

Most of the volunteers are migrants themselves, and they’re all workers — construction workers, domestic workers, gardeners, laborers, you name it. They finish work around 7 on Friday night, drive their trucks seven hours to Arizona, sleep for maybe three hours and then walk for hours through that harsh and harrowing landscape. I have volunteered with them since 2016, and it’s truly very hard. They sleep in a tent on Saturday night and search on Sunday until they have to drive home. Then they get up early Monday morning and go back to work.

Needless to say, they don’t have any steady funding. They have a website and a Facebook page, and they set up stands in swap meets, where they talk about their work and collect donations. Those are also ways they hear about the missing.

What the Águilas do, their heroic efforts and altruism, deserves recognition. Their work needs to be made visible. This short documentary isn’t looking at all the pieces of the issue, but it looks at one specific piece to raise awareness about what is happening at the border and hopefully help change it.

Q: You’ve said this documentary is a humanitarian plea. What action do you hope it will inspire?

A: People don’t want to deal with the fact that migration is creating this humanitarian crisis. In 2020, Arizona’s Pima County morgue recovered 227 mi-grants’ bodies. In the 1990s, they would find 10 or 20 bodies. The numbers have skyrocketed because of “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a set of U.S. government policies that militarily fortify urban crossing points, forcing migrants to cross through unforgiving desert terrain. The loose estimate is that for each body they find, there are five that the desert never gives back.

This has become invisible, despite its radical visibility: The bones are liter-ally laying exposed in the sun. I want to raise awareness, and most importantly, effect policy change.

This documentary, and a feature documentary in the making, are part of a larger, three-pronged interdisciplinary and collaborative endeavor called forensic empathy that I initiated and lead. The other participants are the Tijuana-based filmic and artistic collective Dignicraft — José Luis Figueroa, Ana Paola Rodríguez and Omar Foglio — and Jonathan Crisman, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

We are also writing a scholarly monograph and leading the creation of a digital map of the border. There’s the imaginary border you see on most maps — a criminally simplified version that our map wants to complicate. It’s not all bad guys trying to get into a perfect country. We’re complicating the map with prisons, migrant assistance groups, artist studios. We’re thickening the map so students can learn about the complexity of the border.

If you teach students complexity, they will pause and reflect. If you oversimplify, they will not reflect, and they will believe in fallacies.

Q: How does forensic empathy shine a light on this topic in a new way?

A: We have to look at this grim reality through the eyes of empathy, not just through the cold statistics. Forensic empathy is a direct response to the tragedy of the horrifyingly high number of undocumented immigrants who perish year after year while crossing the U.S.–Mexico border. It studies the forensic efforts, archival practices and art interventions that take place around border casualties and looks at the personal belongings found on the deceased immigrants through the eyes of chief examiners, consular agencies, policymakers, nonprofit organizations and artist-activists.

The personal belongings recovered in the desert tell a story. Belongings like camouflaged clothes, carpet-soled shoes and matte water bottles are all designed to help the migrants truly disappear into the landscape. But hundreds of bodies are found, not just by the Águilas, but by day-trippers, hunters, even dog walkers. The migrants die of dehydration, hypothermia, hyperthermia. Yet because we don’t want to look at our failure as a society, the bodies become invisible and so does the apparatus around it that increases the deaths.

This is a key role of the humanities, to apply critical thinking in dealing with the crucial issues of our times and to spearhead initiatives that connect with the community and fully invest in social justice.

LEARN MORE

Watch the documentary, available for a year through The New Yorker’s website. Visit the Águilas del Desierto website.

 

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