Babies conceived during a period of famine are at risk of developing addictions later in life, according to new research published in the international journal Addiction. Researchers from the Dutch mental health care organisation, Bouman GGZ, and Erasmus University Rotterdam studied men and women born in Rotterdam between 1944 and 1947, the time of the Dutch ‘hunger winter’. Those whose mothers had suffered severe food shortages and starvation during their early pregnancy were significantly more likely to be receiving treatment for addictive disorders.
The ‘hunger winter’ which lasted from mid-October 1944 until 12 May 1945 has been credited with a range of chronic disorders among adults in later life. These include physical conditions such as coronary heart disease, and psychiatric ones such as schizophrenia and clinical depression. It came about when the German authorities imposed a total embargo on occupied Netherlands in retaliation for Dutch support for the Allied forces after the failed parachute attack at Arnhem in September 1944. Food rations declined to extremely low levels between February and May 1945 resulting in a starvation peak when the average daily food consumption dropped to below 1000 calories. The normal daily intake is 2300 calories for women and 2900 for men. Pregnant and nursing mothers were at first entitled to supplementary rations but at the peak of the emergency the extra rations could no longer be sustained. 22000 people in the western Netherlands died because of the famine.
Modern brain research has shown that if the brain is not able to develop at normal rates while the child is in the womb neuro-developmental abnormalities can occur which give rise to susceptibility to addiction. Ernst Franzek, the lead author of the study, observes “exposure to famine beyond the first three months did not result in a higher risk of addiction, which supports the view that the first trimester is crucial in the development of the reward system in the human brain that is involved in addictive behaviour”. He further comments that the research findings “point up the adverse influence of maternal malnutrition on the mental health of the adult offspring, and give rise to great concern about the possible future consequences for the hunger regions in our world”.
Ernst J. Franzek, Niels Sprangers, A. Cecile J. W. Janssens, Cornelia M. Van Duijn, Ben J. M. Van De Wetering (2008). Prenatal exposure to the 1944-45 Dutch ‘hunger winter’ and addiction later in life. Addiction OnlineEarly articles: doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2007.02084.x
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Addiction (www.addictionjournal.org) is a monthly scientific journal, read in over sixty countries and publishing more than 2000 pages every year. Owned by the Society for the Study of Addiction, it has been in continuous publication since 1884. Addiction publishes peer-reviewed research reports on alcohol, illicit drugs and tobacco, bringing together research conducted within many different disciplines, as well as editorials and other debate pieces.