FRIDAY, Dec. 15, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- New research in rats may solve the mystery of why babies need less oxygen during the stressful moments of birth.
Scientists say a hormone produced by mom tells the fetal brain to quiet down and stop using so much energy.
The findings could potentially lead to new treatments for mothers during difficult births. At the least, they reveal the "remarkable" workings of the birth system, said Dr. Hugh Taylor, director of the division of reproductive endocrinology at Yale University School of Medicine.
"It's just comforting to know that when you're going into labor, your body is doing something to protect your baby, and your baby will be more likely to come out normal and intact," said Taylor, who wasn't involved in the research but is familiar with the study findings. "You'll have healthier, smarter babies from the natural protection that the body provides against the difficulties of childbirth."
Oxygen, of course, is crucial to keeping brains healthy. Even a few minutes of oxygen deprivation can cause major problems in humans and other animals.
The mother normally provides oxygen to a fetus through her own blood vessels. However, birth upsets everything.
"During the whole process of labor and delivery, the uterus is contracting, the blood vessels that feed the baby are compressed," Taylor said. "There's less blood flow and oxygen delivery. Then the umbilical cord can get compressed and prevent blood and oxygen containing the blood from being delivered from the placenta to the baby. It's a time of tremendous stress on the baby."
A hormone called oxytocin essentially kick-starts the birth process, and scientists wondered if it might also protect baby during this trying time. Oxytocin has other functions, having been linked to everything from social bonding, love, and the pleasure of orgasm.
In the new study, which appears in the Dec. 15 issue of the journal Science, researchers in Germany and France report that a surge in a mother rat's oxytocin levels during childbirth calmed neurotransmitters, essentially quieting the brain so it won't need as much oxygen.
Essentially, oxytocin is "neuroprotective," said study co-author Yehezkel Ben-Ari, director of the Mediterranean Institute of Neurobiology in Marseille, France.
By reducing the ability of the rats to process oxytocin, researchers found that they could cause more problems with oxygen during birth.
What's next? "We might want to intentionally give babies oxytocin to help them survive difficult pregnancies," Taylor said.
Learn more about childbirth from the American Academy of Family Physicians.