NEW HAVEN -- Quite by accident, Tamas Horvath's scientific journey has led him to childbirth.
For weeks, Horvath, chairman of the Department of Comparative Medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, has heard from midwives, nurses and doctors, all reacting to his findings about a protein in the brain that is affected by the manner in which a mother delivers her baby.
In essence, Horvath and his colleagues found, based on studies of mice, that a key protein related to brain development in newborns is activated during natural childbirth, but impaired in Caesarean section births.
The protein is called mitochondrial uncoupling protein 2, or UCP2. It plays a role in everything from the cellular metabolism of fat to the creation of neurons and circuits in the part of the brain controlling long- and short-term memory.
The findings were published recently in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.
"It's becoming very clear that the perinatal environment has an impact on later onset disorders, such as obesity and diabetes," said Horvath. "The hours of delivery are the stress that moves you from one form of existence to another."
Of course, Horvath did not set out to examine the role of childbirth in the development of proteins. His research over the years has been wide-ranging, examining the intricate ways the brain communicates with the rest of the body.
In certain ways, he said, the brain acts more as an enabler, reacting to prompts from elsewhere in the body.
The UCP2 protein was identified more than a decade ago. One of its important duties is to promote the survival of cells under stress and help adapt cells to a changing environment.
Now that his research indicates a difference in how the protein is triggered in natural childbirth versus C-section, Horvath wants to see if there are long-term physical or developmental differences.
"It's reasonable to look at the potential human relevance of this," Horvath said.
About one in three births in the U.S. are via Caesarean section; many of them are elective. The rate is higher in many parts of the world.
"We have a soaring Caesarean rate," said Holly Powell Kennedy, the Helen Varney professor of midwifery at the Yale School of Nursing. "A Caesarean birth can save lives, no question, but not one-in-three.
"The inherent event of labor in birth is not dangerous. We need to skillfully attend to what kind of stress makes a baby healthier and what kind of stress is too much."
Kennedy said Horvath's research has piqued the interest of nurses, doctors and midwives around the world because it offers insight into the complex physical processes happening at birth.
"The actual stress of a baby going through labor and birth is a healthy thing," Kennedy said. "There are things that happen in labor that begin to lay down the cellular mechanisms in a baby."
As such concerns and opinions find their way to Horvath's in-box, he is only too happy to add to the body of knowledge about a much-discussed topic.
He plans to continue his research. "I'd like to pick this up again as soon as possible," he said.
Call Jim Shelton at 203-789-5664 or visit his blog at www.thejimbolist.com. ___
(c)2012 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)
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