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Release: Sept. 10, 2001

UI researchers receive grant to study effects of prenatal stress

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University of Iowa College of Public Health researchers have received a four-year, $1,676,490 grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study the role that prenatal maternal stress plays in adverse birth outcomes.

Audrey Saftlas, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology in the UI College of Public Health and its Center for Health Policy and Research, will serve as principal investigator of the study. Marci Lobel, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York – Stony Brook, will serve as the project's co-principal investigator.

The study will investigate the effects of maternal stress on the risk of two adverse pregnancy outcomes: preterm delivery and birth of growth-retarded infants (small-for-gestational age). Preterm delivery and intra-uterine growth retardation are the key causes of low birth weight, which in turn is the major cause of infant mortality in the United States.

"Most studies of maternal stress have focused on risk of low birth weight rather than the causes of low birth weight," Saftlas said. "Our study will be among the first to examine the effects of prenatal stress on these birth outcomes in a large number of women from the general population. From this research, we hope to identify strategies to prevent low birth weight outcomes."

The population-based case-control study will enroll more than 3,000 mothers, all residents of three Iowa counties, who give birth between January 1, 2002, and December 31, 2003.

"This research is timely and important as a step in understanding factors during pregnancy related to healthy babies," said James Torner, Ph.D., professor and head of the UI department of epidemiology. "The study will provide a valuable contribution in determining the role of individual and social dynamics. This study has institutional approval and is voluntary with the information provided as confidential and private."

Douglas Wakefield, Ph.D., professor and director of the UI Center for Public Health Policy and Research, said, "Results from this study have the potential to reduce the high burden of maternal illness and infant mortality and disability on this vulnerable population in Iowa and the nation. In addition, it should provide a framework for developing strategies to improve access to and the quality of medical care for high risk women in Iowa."

Other UI researchers involved in the study include investigators Robert Woolson, Ph.D., professor, department of biostatistics; Susan Murty, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Social Work; Susan Schechter, clinical professor, School of Social Work; and Jerome Yankowitz, M.D., associate professor, department of obstetrics and gynecology.