Study examines how mother affects baby — even before birth

As a human scientist, Iowa State University student Andrew Dismukes isn’t satisfied to know that maternal factors influence a child’s development.

He wants to understand the mechanisms that explain how and why. This means a scientific study at the level of the genome.

Dismukes, a doctoral student in human development and family studies, studies epigenetics — the way genes get expressed as a result of factors in their environment.

“If you think about the different layers that can be considered outcomes, there’s the genes that a mom passes on to her baby,” Dismukes explained. “Then there’s the way those genes are turned on or off, or up-regulated or down-regulated — that’s the layer we call the epigenetic layer. Some of that is transmitted and some of that comes online as part of the baby’s very first experiences with life.”

Through a research internship, Dismukes is finishing his second year at a project at Tulane University in New Orleans called the Infant Development Study with Stacy Drury, an associate professor in psychiatry at Tulane University. The five-year study supported by the National Institutes of Health looks at how a mother’s experiences before and during pregnancy influence her child and her relationship with her child.

“He’s currently working on a project which takes him outside of the labor and delivery room for dozens of women so that the nurse can hand him a placenta which he takes back to the lab in order to extract RNA and methylated DNA,” said associate professor Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff. “Andrew then interacts directly with the infants across the first year of life to observe their health and development. By the time he’s analyzing data from the lab or writing papers, he really knows these youngsters: as infants and toddlers, but also at the level of knowing how their DNA unwinds.”

Preliminary findings show connections such as how a mother’s adverse experiences in her own childhood affect the stress response in her baby at four months of age.

But Dismukes hopes the study will ultimately produce a much broader understanding of human development.

“The overall goal is broadly speaking to examine preconception and prenatal stresses on infant health and behavioral outcomes,” Dismukes said. “It’s a big multivariable approach to studying behavior in infants.”