Early life stress like that experienced by ill newborns
appears to take an early toll of the heart, affecting its ability to relax and
refill with oxygen-rich blood, researchers report.
Rat pups separated from their mothers a few hours each day,
experienced a significant decrease in this basic heart function when – as life
tends to do – an extra stressor was added to raise blood pressure, said Dr. Catalina
Bazacliu, neonatologist at the Medical College of Georgia and Children's
Hospital of Georgia at Georgia Regents University. Bazacliu worked under the
mentorship of Dr. Jennifer Pollock, biochemist in the Section of Experimental
Medicine in the MCG Department of Medicine.
The relaxation and filling rate remained low in the
separation model, although decreases stabilized by ages two and six months, as
the rats neared middle age. Both the model and controls experienced decreases
in those functions that come naturally with age.
What the study found
Interestingly, the force with which the heart ejected blood
remained unchanged with the additional stressor, angiotensin II, a powerful
constrictor of blood vessels. Echocardiography was used to evaluate heart
"We expected the heart's ability to relax and refill to
lag behind in our model," said Bazacliu, whose research earned her a Young
Investigator Award from the Southern Society for Pediatric Research. She is
reporting her findings during the Southern Regional Meetings in New Orleans,
sponsored by the society as well as several other groups including the Southern
Section of the American Federation for Medical Research.
"We believe these babies may be at increased risk for
cardiovascular disease and we are working to understand exactly what puts them
at risk," Bazacliu said. She believes hers is the first animal study of
this aspect of heart function.
Dr Analia S. Loria, assistant research scientist in
Pollock's lab and also a co-author on the new abstract, has shown that the
blood pressure of maternally separated rats goes up more in response to
angiotensin II and their heart rates go higher as well. Normally, a
compensatory mechanism drives the heart rate down a little when blood pressure
Work by others has shown persistent blood vessel changes in
the early stress model, including increased contraction and reduced relaxation
when similarly stressed.
Longitudinal studies in humans have shown long-term
cardiovascular implications, such as babies born to mothers during the Dutch
famine of World War II, growing up at increased risk for cardiovascular disease
as well as diabetes, obesity and other health problems.
Effects of stress on
Bazacliu's earlier studies in a similar animal model
indicated that babies whose growth was restricted in utero by conditions such
as preeclampsia – maternal high blood pressure during pregnancy – were at
increased risk of cardiovascular disease as adults. This was true whether the
babies were born prematurely or at full term. Increased pressure during
development reduces blood flow from mother to baby; reduced nutrition and
oxygen to the baby is considered an environmental stress.
Bazacliu's interest in early life stress grew out of the
reality that, while obviously intended to save premature and otherwise
critically ill newborns, neonatal intensive care units can further stress these
babies. "All the procedures we must do, the separation from the mother,
the environment, even though the babies need the help, it represents a
stress." NICUs such as the one at Children's Hospital of Georgia work to
minimize negative impact with strategies such as open visiting hours, minimalising
noise and other family-centred care strategies.
Bazacliu came to MCG in 2011 from the University of Buffalo
School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.