The children of mothers exposed to terror attacks during pregnancy are 2.5 times more likely to develop schizophrenia than mothers not exposed to terror during pregnancy. This was the finding of a comprehensive study undertaken at the University of Haifa.
“It is possible that the psychosocial stress of terror attacks in the mothers occurred during a critical period of fetal brain development. Insults during such a critical period of neurodevelopment were so potent that years later the risk of schizophrenia increased.” explained Prof. Stephen Levine, one of the authors of the study.
Previous studies have found that exposure to terror attacks through television – i.e. the media reporting of terror incidents in which the individual was not personally involved – cause the damage and loss of psychological resources. In the present study, the researchers sought to examine whether babies born to mothers exposed to terror attacks, but not involved in them, faced an elevated risk of schizophrenia.
The study, published in the journal Schizophrenia Research, was undertaken by the doctoral student Yael Weinstein, Prof. Stephen Levine, Prof. Itzhak Levav, Prof. Marc Gelkopf, and Prof. David Roe of the Department of Community Health at the University of Haifa and Ms. Inna Pugachova and Ms. Rinat Yoffe of the Department of Information and Evaluation in the Ministry of Health.
The study was based on information relating to 201,048 children born between 1975 and 1995 – 97,711 girls and 103,337 boys. The children were monitored over an average period of 27 years in order to determine whether or not they developed schizophrenia. The study was undertaken in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Health, and was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Tauber Foundation. It forms part of a series of studies undertaken by Professors Levav and Levine concerning the connection between the exposure of mothers to stress and the risk of psychiatric disorders in their offspring.
During the research period – 1975-1995 – there were 782 terror attacks in Israel that occurred on 622 different days. According to the research model, if a terror attack occurred during pregnancy, the mother of the child is defined as having been exposed to the attack.
Prof. Levine emphasizes that the researchers were aware that their decision to define exposure to terror in this manner could include in their group a woman who might not even have heard of a terror attack that took place far away from her, or when she was not in the country, alongside another woman who was exposed to a closer terror attack, or even several attacks. This could distort the findings. Accordingly, the researchers applied various analytical tools and found that these factors did not seem to alter the study conclusion. Moreover, the large sample size, which included hundreds of thousands of items of data, reduced the risk of statistical error.
The research findings show that children born to mothers exposed to terror attacks are 2.5 times more likely to develop schizophrenia than those whose mothers were not exposed. A total of 3,257 children were born to mothers exposed to terror, of whom 0.64 percent were diagnosed with schizophrenia. In the control group, comprising women not exposed to terror, a total of 197,791 children were born, 0.25 percent of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia. “Pregnancy is a critical period for the development of the brain, and is influenced by stress resulting from exposure to terror. Maternal exposure to terror in pregnancy may damage the fetus’s immune system, leading to an increase in the level of glucocorticoid hormones and disrupting the development of the brain,” Prof. Levine noted.