Womb-life and the Mystery of Twins
On my desk is a scientific paper concerning how early life affects adulthood. Chris Murgatroyd and Dietmar Spengler (2010), molecular biologists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, have shown rather conclusively that life events can induce long-lasting changes in our brain, physiology, and behavior. Early life stress can cause over-secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn weakens our ability to remember things clearly and cope with stress. (For the more scientifically minded, the article includes a detailed explanation of the long-duration effects of methylation.) In their study of mice, the researchers and their colleagues found that periodic infant-mother separation just after birth was a major cause of anxiety. And it is my view, as I’ve noted, that when it comes to humans, the earlier the separation occurs, the more likely the anxiety will result in a shortened life span. The published results from the study end with a rather bleak assessment: “Adverse events in early life can leave persistent marks on specific genes that may prime susceptibility to neuroendocrine and behavioral dysfunction.” Yet further evidence that early events have a profound effect on later life.
One of those behavioral dysfunctions may be ADD, so commonly diagnosed in children nowadays. There is a good deal of evidence that a mother’s hyperactivity, frequently the result of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine taken during pregnancy, can leave an imprint that affects the offspring for a lifetime. Just that early exposure is enough to set up a child to be revved up and jumpy for life. Of course this may stem from more than just drugs, as we saw with the study of Holocaust survivors. I say that a better approach for understanding and treating Attention Deficit Disorder is to trace its origins, back to womb-life, as well as an individual’s ancestral history.
These critical experiences are left out of the usual psychotherapy, but they are key motivations for how we behave, how we learn and how and if we make love. It also plays a part in whether the offspring can have children or will be sterile. It can also help determine if we become obese, to say nothing of mental illness. In this period when the body and brain are rapidly developing, it is not a surprise that adversity affects so much of us – body and brain.
In addition to altering metabolic function and reshaping our personality, traumatic experiences in the first years of life may weaken the disease-fighting ability of the immune system. A report from researchers at the University of Wisconsin demonstrated how children who had had an abusive early life or had spent time in an orphanage showed a compromised ability to defend against disease (Shirtcliff, Coe & Pollak, 2009). Even after the children were removed from the adverse environment, damage was still apparent. The scientists point out that though the immune cells are ready at birth, how they develop and become a dependable cohesive system depends on experience. As part of the study, the investigators used the body’s ability to control latent herpes viruses as a measure of immune competence. People with an intact immune system can usually keep these viruses under control. Those who are neglected and unloved cannot. Thus, such afflictions as the herpes virus, which often lie latent, are more likely to be activated in those who have poor immune control. In this case, traumatized patients had higher levels of herpes antibodies, indicating their immune systems were compromised against the herpes virus. Those later living in a stable environment still showed higher levels of herpes antibodies.
There is little question now that stress and chronic anxiety of the mother affects the baby’s HPA axis, as we have seen. Thus, stress sets the stage for later anxiety in the offspring, partly accomplished by methylation. It heightens cortisol levels, and chronically high stress hormones affect so many functions later in life, not the least of which is thinking and memory (Radtke et al., 2011). Much further down the road it may affect the development of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. What is important here is that in-utero trauma sets the program for adult behavior, especially afflictions such as heroin addiction. The person is trying to calm something inside but has no idea it exists or what it is. Years later there may be panic attacks that seem to come out of nowhere. But they come out of somewhere; it is our job to find out where. If we ignore early womb-life experience we will never discover origins, and we will keep looking into the current environment for answers. What is clear now is that some get addicted to heavy drugs to keep panic attacks from happening. That is, it may be the same imprint involved in both the panic attack and the addiction, only the drug user has found a way to block it. Addiction may be forever a mystery because it comes from archaic imprints that share common cause with sharks. How can anyone find that ancient cause? There is a way. Allow the patient, after a time in our therapy, to descend to deep-lying imprints organized millions of years earlier. Patients are not led there nor are they forced there; the process of resonance will accomplish it (which I explain more fully below in connection with new research about how traumas get embedded in the system). To repeat: as we evolve there are more and more neurons that take part. They evolve out of earlier neuronal processes and are related to them. Thus there is an interconnectedness so that they form a neuronal circuit. Each different level of brain function has a link to yet other higher levels. It is what I call the chain of pain. When we start with a patient about his current life, eventually, over months he will descend automatically to lower connected levels. Until after at least a year of therapy he may touch on brainstem imprints. Here lies the deepest and most remote memories, also the most devastating in terms of the force of the imprinted pain. It is later the most disruptive of imprints. It is ineluctably the neuronal chain that will lead the patient there. When we look at mental illness and severe physiologic afflictions we need to focus on these early memories. Here may lie the origins of our mysterious maladies.
The study of twins provides fertile ground for demonstrating the far- reaching impact of womb-life on who we turn out to be and what we suffer from years later. In one study, researchers investigated the perplexing case of identical twin girls born with vastly different physical conditions. One girl was normal while the other had severe birth defects, born with two vaginas, two colons and a spinal cord that split in two towards the bottom of her back. “So how could twins who shared the same genes be so different?” asked the author of a report on the epigenetic research, “The Third Factor: Beyond Nature and Nurture,” in New Scientist(13).
We have long known of epigenetic marks – chemical labels added to DNA that alters the activity of genes without altering the sequence. In particular, if a stretch of DNA has lots of added methyl groups, the activity of nearby genes is suppressed. So the team took a closer look at the Axin gene in blood cells from the twins. Sure enough, the girl with the split spine had unusually high levels of methylation. So while other causes cannot yet be ruled out, the researchers think the most likely explanation is that in one twin something pushed methylation levels high enough to shut the gene down. Mystery solved? Far from it. What pushed methylation levels above a critical threshold in one twin but not in the other? ''That's the million-dollar question,'' says team member Nick Martin, of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia.
In another study at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a private, not-for-profit research center specializing in molecular biology and genetics, researchers also found great differences in the methylation patterns even between identical twins (Gordon et al., 2012). Investigators looked at umbilicord tissue, cord blood and the placentas of newborn twins and found differences that play an important role in individual development. And here is their important conclusion: “This must be due to events that happened (in the womb) to one twin and not the other,” said senior author Dr. Jeffrey Craig of Australia’s Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, in a press announcement from the research laboratory.(14) So although twins share a womb, what happens to each of them can be quite different. The study, published online in Genome Research, has “for the first time shown that the environment experienced in the womb defines the newborn epigenetic profile.”(15) And, no surprise, the authors believe that womb-life events may have a more profound effect than previously thought. They claim that this discovery is a powerful tool for managing future health and modifying risk.
The lead author believes we can modify risk through dietary intervention and other environmental approaches. He does not say what is crucial: how about we intervene during womb-life and make it salubrious and salutary? How about we make womb-life a great place to be? We can do it through education and we can also do it by reliving those adverse womb events and reversing their deleterious effects.
(13) Pilcher, H. (2013). The third factor: Beyond nature and nurture. New Scientist, 219(2932), 44-47. doi:10.1016/s0262-4079(13)62149-1
(14) Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. "Differences between human twins at birth highlight importance of intrauterine environment." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 July 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120715193843.htm
(15) Differences between human twins at birth highlight importance of intrauterine environment. (2012, July 16). Retrieved from http://genome.cshlp.org/site/press/Announcements.xhtml