Children whose mothers lived through the Dutch "hunger winter" of 1944 - 1945 while pregnant with them were more likely to grow up to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, according to the first study to investigate the relationship between prenatal exposure to famine and addiction.
The findings raise the alarming possibility that in the regions of the world where people are hungry, "there may be an epidemic of addicted people," said Dr Ernst J. Franzek, of Bouman Mental Health Care in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
It's known that prenatal exposure to starvation increases a person's risk of schizophrenia and other serious mental illness. To investigate whether it might also boost addiction risk, Franzek and his colleagues compared 1 288 men and women registered as having an addiction problem in the Rotterdam area, with 19 689 non-addicts living in Rotterdam. All were born between 1944 and 1947.
The "hunger winter," which came about when the German authorities imposed a total embargo on occupied Netherlands to punish the Dutch for helping Allied forces, lasted from October 1944 to May 1945, Franzek and his team explain. Throughout the period, the population's average daily calorie intake was less than 1 400, and dropped to less than 1 000 when the famine peaked from February to May 1945.
Hunger in first trimester influential
Men and women whose mothers had been in the first trimester of pregnancy during the hunger winter were 34 percent more likely to become addicts later in life, the researchers found.
Moreover, addicts were 61 percent more likely to have been exposed to the peak of the hunger winter during the first trimester of pregnancy compared to their non-addicted peers.
The analysis showed a significant effect only for men, but Franzek said it is likely this was due to small numbers of women in the study. Eighty percent of children born of famine pregnancies, he noted, were male.
The brain's reward system, which plays a key role in the development of addiction, develops in early pregnancy, Franzek noted in an interview. Starvation may disturb this system, making a person more vulnerable to becoming an addict, he explained.
Modern day concerns
In regions of the world where people are going hungry, he added, women are still getting pregnant and giving birth, which raises the possibility that these regions will face a spike in addiction, schizophrenia and other serious mental health problems.
He and his colleagues conclude: "The study confirms the adverse influence of severe malnutrition on brain development and maturation, confirms the influence of peri-natal insults on mental health in later life and gives rise to great concern about the possible future consequences for the hunger regions of the world." – (Reuters Health)
- February 2008
Malnutrition, addiction link