Polycystic ovary syndrome linked to mother’s health in pregnancy | Tech News

Research is beginning to unpick the causes of polycystic ovary syndrome

Research is beginning to unpick the causes of polycystic ovary syndrome

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Women who are overweight or smoke during pregnancy are more likely to have daughters who develop polycystic ovary syndrome, a nationwide study has found.

Polycystic ovary syndrome affects about one in ten women and is the most common cause of female infertility. It is typically characterised by ovarian cysts, irregular menstrual cycles and high testosterone levels.

The exact causes of the syndrome are unknown, but growing evidence suggests it can be triggered by environmental factors in the womb.


To explore this idea, Heiddis Valgeirsdottir at Uppsala University in Sweden and her colleagues studied the pregnancy records of all women who gave birth to daughters in Sweden between 1982 and 1995. They matched these with the current health records of their daughters, who are now in their twenties and thirties.

The researchers found that daughters of women who were overweight or obese during pregnancy were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome than those whose mothers had been within the healthy weight range during pregnancy.

Being overweight during pregnancy is known to raise testosterone levels, which may interact with the fetus and lead to polycystic ovary syndrome, says Paolo Giacobini at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, who was not involved in the study. His team is currently studying whether this mechanism occurs in mice.

The study also found that daughters of mothers who smoked 1 to 9 cigarettes per day during pregnancy were 1.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with the syndrome than those whose mothers were non-smokers. This may be because cigarette smoke can damage the ovaries in the developing fetus, says Valgeirsdottir.

Nurture versus nature

More research is needed to work out the exact mechanisms and while certain genes seem to be linked with polycystic ovary syndrome, they don’t tell the whole story,  says Robert Norman at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

At the same time, recent research has found that some environmental exposures in the womb – including to excess levels of a hormone called anti-Müllerian hormone – increase the risk of daughters developing the condition.

Polycystic ovary syndrome has long been a neglected area of medicine, but this is changing, says Norman. He is one of the authors of the first international guidelines on the condition that are due to be published next week. “It’s the first time there’s been an international agreement on how we diagnose and treat each individual component of polycystic ovary syndrome,” he says.

The guidelines will provide detailed, evidence-based recommendations on how to manage infertility, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, sleep problems, anxiety and depression, sexual problems and other possible symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome, says Norman.

Journal reference: BJOG, DOI: 10.1111/1471-0528.15236

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