Children of Hungry Mothers More Susceptible to Addiction
> 1/29/2008 2:40:39 PM

The "hunger winter" that a German embargo imposed on the Netherlands in 1944 exacted a terrible toll. 22,000 citizens starved to death, and many of those who survived had irreversible physical and mental damage from the ordeal. But the toll was paid not only by citizens alive during the war; fetuses of starving mothers had much higher rates of addiction once they matured.

Dr. Ernst Franzek published the results of his examination of the hunger winter in the most recent edition of Addiction. While some lucky people in the countryside escaped the hunger, rationing reduced the average citizen�s daily allowance to below 1000 calories. People feared that fetuses were especially vulnerable to starvation, so expectant mothers were allowed extra rations, but this supplement was not enough and not always available. Unfortunately, Dr. Franzek confirmed the intuition of the Dutch authorities: fetuses are extremely vulnerable to starvation.

The study looked at patients enrolled in the Rotterdam Addiction Treatment Program. These patients were 1.61 times more likely than the general population to have been exposed to famine conditions during the embargo. This heightened risk was most strongly correlated with exposure during the first trimester, when crucial brain development occurs. It is not clear exactly how starvation predisposes the brain toward addiction. One possibility is that decision-making and reward centers of the brain do not grow properly because there is a dearth of chemical resources. Another possibility is that the fetus senses the scarcity of food and comes out prepared to voraciously grab whatever pleasurable things that it can find.

This study reveals one cruel way that cycles of deprivation and suffering perpetuate. As early as the first month of gestation, the child�s future can be crippled. Women who do not have enough to eat give birth to children with maladaptive reward centers, who are more likely to sink into addiction and then poverty, and give birth to another generation of at-risk children. We need to be aware that malnutrition and even simple calorie restriction impose long-term mental health burdens on the third world, and we must take steps to ensure that the cycle does not continue.

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