By RANDI HUTTER EPSTEIN, M.D.
Published: December 27, 2010
NEW HAVEN — When the medical journalist Annie Murphy Paul’s first son was a toddler, she started wondering how personality traits are passed from one generation to the next. So she did what any reporter would do: she delved into the scientific literature and talked to investigators.
Then, in the course of her research, she became pregnant herself.
“I originally wanted to write about the transmission of characteristics and behaviors in families,” Ms. Paul, 38, said in an interview over tea and a brownie at a cafe near her home here. “That definitely came out of having my first child and thinking about what I’d want to pass on from my family and from my husband’s family.”
But then she became intrigued with new research suggesting that some important traits might be passed down in the womb, during gestation. “That struck me as an amazing idea,” she said. “Something between nature or nurture, or really both.”
The idea led to her acclaimed new book, “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives” (Free Press). Divided into nine chapters that mirror the nine months of Ms. Paul’s own pregnancies, it explores the notion that heart disease, diabetes and perhaps other illnesses may have their origins during pregnancy.
This hypothesis is supported by a succession of studies. Some scientists have a hunch that a pregnant woman’s diet and her exposure to various chemicals turn on some fetal genes and turn off others. These switches play a vital role in the life of the adult-to-be, making the child more or less susceptible to disease, including mental illness.