Statins 'could help protect unborn babies from mother's stress'

The use of statins may shield unborn babies from their mother's stress, reducing their risk of health problems in later life, scientists have said.

Statins are normally prescribed to lower high cholesterol but it is believed they could help protect the hearts of babies in the womb.

Research by Edinburgh University found the drugs helped counteract the negative impact of stress hormones on fetal growth and heart development in mice.

The impact of stress on babies - and why statins could help

  • An enzyme produced by the placenta normally protects babies against stress by breaking down stress hormones, limiting the amount of active hormones that reach the baby's blood supply

  • Stressed expectant mothers produce less of this enzyme, meaning the baby is less well protected as stress hormones stop the placenta from developing normal blood vessels

  • This cuts back the blood supply to the growing fetus and affects its heart function

  • The study - on mice that cannot produce the enzyme - found that statins trigger the production of a molecule which stimulates the development of blood vessels in the placenta

  • This helps normal development of the heart and helps the baby to grow to a healthy birth weight

Stress in a pregnant woman can affect the health of their baby. Credit: PA

The drugs are already given to pregnant women but researchers say further studies are needed to establish the long-term effects of statins.