A new study published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety looked at the association of early exposure to flame retardants to anxiety symptoms in adolescents.
“The study focuses on how exposure to certain chemicals found in the environment during pregnancy affects individuals later in life,” study author Dr. Jeffrey Strawn, MD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience in UC’s College of Medicine. “We were specifically interested in how in utero exposure to these chemicals impacts the development of anxiety later in life.”
The research team hypothesized that greater exposure to these chemicals in utero would be associated with more anxiety during adolescence, a time when many anxiety disorders emerge. The impact of environmental exposures on mental health has been generally neglected and not received the attention that it deserves within the scientific community.
“We used data from the Health Outcomes and Measures of the Environment (HOME) study, which was designed to measure the impact of fetal and early childhood exposures to environmental toxicants like lead, mercury, pesticides, PBDEs, and more,” Dr. Strawn, UC Health child and adolescent psychiatrist, told us. “The study enrolled 468 pregnant women in the Greater Cincinnati region from 2003-2006 and continued to follow up with their children up to 12 years later.”
Researchers examined the relationship between exposure to those different environmental chemicals, specifically flame retardants, and the subsequent risk of developing anxiety or having anxiety symptoms.
The study found that each time the PBDE levels doubled in a pregnant mother’s blood sample, this was associated with increased anxiety scores in the adolescents, suggesting PBDE exposure during pregnancy may be a risk factor for developing anxiety symptoms in early adolescence.
“One of the things that we know is that brain development starts relatively early in utero,” Dr. Strawn told us. “We wanted to look at how different exposures at different points in a pregnancy impact brain development and how that potentially translates to risk for anxiety or depression symptoms, which we know tend to manifest later. That we could identify this environmental risk so early in an individual’s life is surprising.”
Moving forward, Dr. Strawn explained that further research will aim to understand what brain regions are being affected by PBDE exposure and if there are certain time periods in pregnancy that is more closely associated with the increased anxiety risk. Work will also continue in improving clinical interventions and working to minimize PBDE exposure.