Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) can occur in children whose mothers contracted the rubella virus, sometimes called German measles, during pregnancy. Depending on the gestational period when the mother contracts rubella, an infant born with CRS may be unaffected by the virus or it may have severe developmental defects. The most severe effects of the virus on fetal development occur when the mother contracts rubella between conception and the first trimester. Defects from maternal rubella in the first trimester are included in the term congenital rubella syndrome, but physicians and researchers specifically refer to those defects as rubella embryopathy. Developmental defects are less severe if the mother contracts rubella in the second trimester, and they are generally negligible if the infection occurs in the third trimester. Prenatal rubella infection can cause birth defects which include deafness, compromised vision, abnormal heart development, and damage to the central nervous system which can lead to compromised cognition and learning disabilities.
Dell Publishing in New York City, New York, published Lennart Nilsson's A Child Is Born in 1966. The book was a translation of the Swedish version called Ett barn blir till, published in 1965. It sold over a million copies in its first edition, and has translations in twelve languages. Nilsson, a photojournalist, documented a nine-month human pregnancy using pictures and accompanying text written by doctors Axel Ingelman-Sundberg, Claes Wirsen and translated by Britt and Claes Wirsen and Annabelle MacMillian. Critics lauded A Child Is Born for its photographs taken in utero of a developing fetus. Furthermore, the work received additional praise for what many described as simple and scientifically accurate explanations of complicated processes during development.
In Australia in the 1940s, Norman McAlister Gregg observed a connection between pregnant women who contracted the rubella virus, or German measles, and cataract formation in their children's eyes. Gregg published his findings in the 1941 article Congenital Cataract following German Measles in the Mother in Transactions of the Ophthalmological Society of Australia. In the article, Gregg analyzed seventy-eight cases of congenital cataracts and suggested that the mothers' environmental factors could cause birth defects, otherwise known as teratogenic effects. Gregg's paper on the teratogenic effects of an environmental agent, the rubella virus, changed the study of birth defects to include viruses as potential causes or teratogens.
Johann Friedrich Meckel and Antoine Etienne Reynaud Augustin Serres developed in the early 1800s the basic principles of what later became called the Meckel-Serres Law. Meckel and Serres both argued that fetal deformities result when development prematurely stops, and they argued that these arrests characterized lower life forms, through which higher order organisms progress during normal development. The concept that the embryos of higher order organisms progress through successive stages in which they resemble lower level forms is called recapitulation. Meckel, a professor of anatomy at the University of Halle in Halle, Germany, and Serres, a physician at Hotel-Dieu de Paris in Paris, France, did not work together. Rather, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their similar approaches, in which they compared the anatomy and embryos of different species so as to relate stages of embryonic development to the scala naturae, led oher scientists to generalize their individual concepts into one general theory. The recapitulation ideas of Meckel and Serres became part of the mid-eighteenth century debate about how to explain morphological similarities between species.
Body Worlds is an exhibition featuring plastinates, human bodies that have been preserved using a plastination process. First displayed in 1995 in Tokyo, Japan, this collection of anatomical specimens has since been displayed around the world. Although the exhibition debuted in Japan, the idea for the displays began at Heidelberg University in Heidelberg, Germany, where anatomist Gunther von Hagens invented a technique for plastination in the 1970s. After years of research and small-scale presentations of his work, von Hagens created Body Worlds, or Korperwelten in German. The attraction, which has been viewed by greater than 25 million people, has spread the study of anatomy into the public realm, making it possible for many to see inside an actual human body. Body Worlds has shown plastinated human embryos and fetuses.
Michael R. Harrison worked as a pediatric surgeon in the US throughout the late-twentieth century and performed many fetal surgeries, including one of the first successful surgeries on a fetus in utero, or while it is still in its gestational carrier’s body, also called open fetal surgery. A fetus is an organism developing inside of the uterus that is anywhere from eight weeks old to birth. Harrison hypothesized that open fetal surgery could correct developmental defects that may become fatal to the fetus at birth. After years of research, Harrison and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, in San Francisco, California, performed surgery on the fetus of a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy to correct the fetus’s developmental defects. The surgery was successful, as the fetus developed into a healthy child. Harrison’s work led to advancements in fetal treatment techniques, such as a method to conduct open fetal surgery that will not harm the fetus or pregnant woman, as well as the establishment of one of the first fetal treatment centers in the US.
In 2011, fetal researcher Vivette Glover published “Annual Research Review: Prenatal Stress and the Origins of Psychopathology: An Evolutionary Perspective,” hereafter, “Prenatal Stress and the Origins of Psychopathology,” in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. In that article, Glover explained how an evolutionary perspective may be useful in understanding the effects of fetal programming. Fetal programming is a hypothesis that attempts to explain how factors during pregnancy can affect fetuses after birth. Researchers associate exposure to prenatal stress, or stress experienced before birth, with an increased likelihood of some mental disorders. Glover states that such outcomes may be traced back to a fetus’s response to stress during pregnancy, and that those outcomes may have been beneficial in the past. By taking an evolutionary approach toward understanding mental disorders, Glover provided insights for studying the lasting effects of maternal stress during pregnancy on children’s mental health.
In 2009, A. John Henderson and colleagues published “Mothers’ Anxiety During Pregnancy Is Associated with Asthma in Their Children,” hereafter, “Mothers’ Anxiety,” in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Previous studies had shown that maternal stress during pregnancy affects children’s health during childhood. The researchers explored the association of asthma in children with maternal anxiety during pregnancy. The cause of asthma is often unknown. Thus, the researchers tested the possibility that maternal anxiety may increase disease risk in the children, particularly the development of asthma. The authors reported a positive association between maternal anxiety during pregnancy and asthma in offspring, indicating the possibility of a causal relationship. The authors’ findings demonstrated the health effects of maternal stress during pregnancy on children’s physiological and immune development.
Cocaine use by pregnant women has a variety of effects on the embryo and fetus, ranging from various gastro-intestinal and cardiac defects to tissue death from insufficient blood supply. Thus, cocaine has been termed a teratogen, or an agent that causes defects in fetuses during prenatal development. Cocaine is one of the most commonly used drugs in the US and it has a history of both medical and illegal recreational use. It is a drug capable of a wide array of effects on physical and mental health. Research on the teratogenic effects of cocaine began in the early 1980s, and in 1985 research on the effects of cocaine on prenatal development gained widespread attention. Since then, numerous studies have contributed to information about the detrimental impacts of maternal cocaine use on embryonic and fetal development.
In 2004, Amanda J. Drake and Brian R. Walker published “The Intergenerational Effects of Fetal Programming: Non-genomic Mechanisms for the Inheritance of Low Birth Weight and Cardiovascular Risk,” hereafter, “The Intergenerational Effects,” in the Journal of Endocrinology. In their article, the authors assert that cardiovascular disease may develop via fetal programming, which is when a certain event occurring during a critical point of pregnancy affects the fetus long after birth. Drake and Walker were among the first to show that the programming effects of cardiovascular disease could be sustained across generations through non-genetic means. In “The Intergenerational Effects,” the authors identify how non-genetic mechanisms may perpetuate fetal programming influences over generations, highlighting the importance for further research on fetal programming.