A lifelong connection that starts in the womb

The saying “a mother holds her children in her heart” could literally be true. As it turns out, there’s a lifelong connection that forms between baby and mother after conception — and it starts at the cellular level.

During pregnancy, mom and baby’s cells do a sort of mingling dance. Studies have shown cells from the fetus cross the placenta and enter the mother’s body through her bloodstream, where they can become part of her tissues. These cellular threads, so to speak, have been found to stay with the mother for decades. Yet scientists are just starting to scratch the surface on how these fetal cells are interacting with maternal cells and what purpose they serve.

One of the earliest studies tracing this phenomenon — referred to as microchimera — found male DNA in female brains of mothers in their 70s who had sons.1,2 Later studies found that fetal cells crossing the blood-brain barrier can turn into neurons.3 Other scientists have traced fetal cells transferred to a mother’s bones, liver and lungs.4 There they have been found to survive for decades in tissues such as the skin, liver and spleen.

Beyond creating an inescapable lifelong bond, some scientist believe these fetal cells to be beneficial to mothers by aiding in things like repairing injuries and damaged organs. That’s because fetal cells have the ability to turn into different kinds of cells. And once they’re in the mother’s blood it may be possible for them to circulate and attach themselves in tissues. For instance, one study found fetal cells in scar tissues left by C-sections.5

In a way, it’s like the baby is giving back for all it has taken during pregnancy (read: morning sickness, exhaustion), and even helping moms recover after birth by healing wounds.5 The possibilities are truly exciting.

1 Sanders, L. (2014, April 14). Male DNA found in female brains. Retrieved March 15, 2017, from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/male-dna-found-female-brains

2 Chan et al., (2012). Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain. PLoS ONE, 7(9). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045592

3 Zeng et al., (2010). Pregnancy-Associated Progenitor Cells Differentiate and Mature into Neurons in the Maternal Brain. Stem Cells and Development, 19(12), 1819-1830. doi:10.1089/scd.2010.0046

4 Gammill, H. S., & Nelson, J. L. (2010). Naturally Acquired Microchimerism. The International Journal of Developmental Biology, 54(2-3), 531-543. doi:10.1387/ijdb.082767hg

5 Mahmood, U., & O'Donoghue, K. (2014). Microchimeric Fetal Cells Play a Role in Maternal Wound Healing after Pregnancy. Chimerism, 5(2), 40-52. doi:10.4161/chim.28746