' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Our (adopted) children's cells live on in our brains

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Our (adopted) children's cells live on in our brains

 "Maternite" by Mary Cassatt
"The profound psychological and physical bonds shared by the mother and her child begin during gestation when the mother is everything for the developing fetus, supplying warmth and sustenance, while her heartbeat provides a soothing constant rhythm," according to a recent article in Scientific American. This is nothing new to first mothers who well know that a piece of paper signed by a judge cannot destroy the connection constructed by nature. "The link between a mother and child is profound, and new research suggests a physical connection even deeper than anyone thought," writes Robert Martone.

It's reassuring to have what we know instinctively reaffirmed by science. The Journal article is reporting on research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle that found that cells from a developing fetus migrate through the placenta and end up in the mother's brain--as well as many other organs, such as the lung, thyroid muscle, liver, heart, kidney and skin. Male cells were found in the brains of women and had been living there, in some cases, for several decades. We think of ourselves as individual and
distinct human beings, acting on our own, but if we now think about having cells in our brains that originated with say, your mother-in-law through her grandson that you carried, the connectedness of us all becomes a very real concept and easier to grasp. The connection exists at the cellular level.

The study also notes that there is evidence that cells may transferred from mother to child through nursing, between twins in utero, and from an older sibling to a younger sibling during gestation--after all, they shared the same space in the womb and the elder child left some cells behind. Women may have cells from both their mother, as well as from their own pregnancies--which is how male cells show up in female organs. It would appear--we note with bemusement--that then the commonly noted and age-old feuding that goes on between sons' mothers and their daughters-in-law has in fact a basic biological connection, for the study further found that there is even evidence for competition between cells from grandmother (the mother-in-law) and infant within the mother.

Reading this we were reminded of a study heard the other evening on the nightly news, which we mused over at the time: one study found that men who had good marriages where likely to get on well with their mothers-in-law, but the opposite was not true: women in strong marriages did not necessarily show the same affinity for their husbands' mothers. After hearing the study on the news, Lorraine recalled the old saying: A daughter is a daughter all of her life; a son is a son until he takes a wife.

We know this is a long stretch here--we are talking about a few cells duking it out--but the more we learn about life, the more we see psychological patterns having biological underpinnings. We both have written numerous times--as Jane did just the other day--about the biological connection between ourselves, and our children, adopted or not, and here we have an example of our children's cells living for decades in our brains. Is it any wonder we can't just put behind the loss of our children that adoption was to us and move on? Fascinating to ponder, but we digress.

The scientific name for this dance of the cells, or the persistent presence of a few genetically distinct cells in an organism, is microchimerism. As Martone notes, it was first noticed in humans many years ago when cells containing the male “Y” chromosome were found circulating in the blood of women after pregnancy. Since these cells are genetically male, they could not have been the women’s own, but most likely came from their babies during gestation.

What's the value of these migrating cells which the scientists call fetal microchimeric cells? They are similar to stem cells, cells able to grow into a variety of different kinds of cells, and may aid in tissue repair in all parts of the body. They may also stimulate the immune system to stem the growth of tumors.

The report did not discuss the cellular impact, or transfer of cells, when a woman carries a child who does not carry her genes, as in the case of surrogacy with eggs from another woman. Now that is a study we would like to see done. If a fetus naturally sloughs off cells, it is hard to imagine that the process would be any different with a fetus developed with eggs from a stranger. --lorraine and Jane

*Robert Martone, "Scientists Discover Children's Cells Living in Mothers' Brains: The Connection between mother and child is even deeper than thought" 12/4/1
 Effect of parity on fetal and maternal microchimerism: interaction of grafts within a host?

From FMF
Can feminism be hereditary?
Biology is irrelevant, judge rules in gay custody battle

The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture "In the follow-up to his bestseller, Genome, Matt Ridley takes on a centuries-old question: is it nature or nurture that makes us who we are? Ridley asserts that the question itself is a "false dichotomy." Using copious examples from human and animal behavior, he presents the notion that our environment affects the way our genes express themselves."--Amazon.

And from Publisher's Weekly: "Nature versus nurture" sums up in a nutshell one of the most contentious debates in science: Are people's qualities determined by their genes (nature) or by their environment (nurture)? The debate has only grown louder since the human genome has been found to comprise only 30,000 genes. Some scientists claim that we don't have enough genes to account for all the existing human variations. Ridley...says that not only are nature and nurture not mutually exclusive, but that 'genes are designed to take their cue from nurture.'"

Lorraine adds: I find the nature/nurture discussion fascinating. This is a book I'm going to get. As for how did microchimerism get its name? Think of Chimera, the creature in Greek mythology that was part serpent, part lion, part goat. Some combo, eh? But truly in nature, the mixing of cells from genetically distinct creatures is not at all uncommon. Called chimerism, it biologically includes corals and, er, slime mold. And now, us.


  1. So that's why women don't get along with their mothers in law.

    But I have a question? Did anyone ever hear of a mother who seemed not to have the "mothering" instinct kick in, like she didn't get any of that hormone that makes women love their children? I heard of a woman who seemed not to have it. Her children were not adopted but she was a really lousy mother.

  2. Yes, Marybeth, some women are really lousy mothers, even if they are biological mothers. We all know that.Sometimes the connection fails tragically. Human beings are much more complex than geese or turkeys that imprint on the first thing they see as "mother" or other animals that nurture or reject and kill their young for solely hormonal or biological reasons. If the right hormones were all it took to make a good mother, we could cure child abuse and neglect with a few shots or pills.

    There is much more to mothering than hormones and cells migrating from the fetus to the mother, and a lot can go wrong in parenting of any kind that is not biologically driven or corrected. Hormones and cells and biology play a part in the connection between mother and child, but they are not a simple and universal explanation for the complications of human society and families.

    I think the "mother-in-law" conclusion is pretty far-fetched, because there is so much else going on in family interactions.

    I do not find the concept of cells from my children "living on in the brain" especially comforting or related to the connection I feel to all my kids, and I already know we are connected forever genetically through DNA, as well as emotionally through love. For me this concept of migrating fetal cells does not add anything to that. I do not see where it proves anything.

    I think we have to be very careful in drawing emotional conclusions from a physical phenomenon that may be useful in preventing tumor growth, or may be a contributor to autoimmune disease in the mother or have other unknown effects, but really says nothing about emotional connection.

  3. The Scientific American doesn't make emotional connections regarding the the brain cells and the disparate humans they came from. One can make the inference--and I will admit we do--but basically that is up to the reader. To me, this study seems just another piece of the puzzle as to why we mothers just don't forget about the child we lost and move on.

    As for the mother-in-law connection with the grandchild's cells, I did find it interesting, especially coming on the heels of the report that I did hear on the NBC Nightly News about a week ago, particularly the way it was worded in the SA report. Unfortunately, I did not catch the source of the study on the Nighty News, so I cannot look it up. However, I do believe that the body/brain connection exists, and perhaps that is why all these studies are so intriguing to me. Apparently, from your comments, I assume you discount the connection between our physical being and our mental state.

    I do not.

  4. Marybeth, you actually asked of anyone had *heard of a woman* whose mothering instinct did not kick in. I'd venture to say that the whole world has. You haven't? What world do you live in? Oh, I know. Adopt-o-land, where with a little financial support and persuasion, every woman is the "mother she was intended to be".

    It is a myth that all women love their children or even want to mother them half-heartedly. Nobody who isn't into parenthood should attempt it. The damage done by bad mothers (and fathers) is enormous. Shitty natural mothers are rich, poor, single, married, intelligent, dumb, conservative, and liberal. What they have in common is the inability to to place their child's welfare and happiness above their own.

  5. Someone posted that article on FB the other day and I was facinated. It will be interesting to see what is learned from this.

  6. No, I do not discount the connection between physical being and mental state; there is plenty of evidence they are connected in many ways.

    What I dispute is the specific inference made about the migrating cells, the "this is part of the puzzle about why we mothers just don't forget about our child and move on." I don't think there is any "puzzle" there. It is ridiculous to think that any mother could forget she had a child and those who said it was possible were just wrong and had their own agenda. These cells do not explain why we do not forget, there are plenty of less esoteric explanations for that.

  7. "We know this is a long stretch here--we are talking about a few cells duking it out--but the more we learn about life, the more we see psychological patterns having biological underpinnings."

    I do not take such a dogmatic position as yours, Maryanne. "Part of the puzzle" means PART. I think I find this new evidence interesting as well as amusing, given the frequently noted rivalry between wives and their mothers-in-law. That's all.

  8. And then...there is this. Sort of related, but this about twin rivalry:

    Video of MRI scan shows twins appearing to fight in the womb

    Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/video-shows-twins-fighting-womb-article-1.1210808#ixzz2Er3ZydEo

  9. I do think it could explain part of how the bonding between a Mother and child can be so strong, which is why it is so much more traumatic when we were separated than, say ending a relationship with someone. Another part to why we don't "just move on".

  10. [I want to preface this by excluding those 20 or 300 parents who are mentally ill and don't attach to their kids in a healthy way.]

    We're all affirming that lousy parents exist. I attribute this lousy parenting not to the individual parent(s); but, I definitely attribute lousy parenting to the lousy societal mores (rules) of yesteryear - the ones we all still suffer from today - like adoption.

    Other remnants of past sick mores that we still suffer from today are: spare the rod and spoil the child. Bi-racial marriage and gay love were crimes in the 1960s. People didn't readily show emotions of any kind. Real men didn't take meds.

    Parents usually do what was done to them! I don't blame parents today as much as I blame the goofy patriarchs of yesteryear who made the rules!

  11. Completely off topic- but I was in the apple store with my husband and saw that there was a BRAND of i- accessories called ADOPTED.

    here's the link to the website:

    Is anyone else as appalled as I was by seeing this plastered all over the wall of the store?

  12. Regarding mothers who do not bond: The other night with friends, one of the men said his first wife had four children (one with him) but she did not seem to bond normally with their son. His second wife, whom we know and love, became the boy's mother when he was in kindergarten, as he biological mother had left. The boy, now a father himself of three children, did not see his natural mother--a college professor, and a novelist--for 15 years. They have no contact today, as far as I know, except that they may know where the other is. The woman--the biological mother here--saw our friend a few years ago and told him that she did not have that maternal feeling towards her children until her fourth child.

    Wow. It would be my educated guess that she did not produce the normal bonding hormone, oxytocin, after labor with the first three children, and mothering--until the fourth--for her was simply a chore. I have heard of other cases where the "mothering" left so much to be desired--I am not talking about mentally unstable people--that it sounds abnormal. And it is.

    BTW, "natural" mother is how these highly educated people referred to the "natural" mother in the case above. Without a connection to adoption, they were not steeped in the proper language. What a blessing.

    The last piece in this story is that the natural mother's new novel, which the step-mother read, said that the main character has so many traits of the son she raised that she felt compelled to tell him that he must read his natural mother's novel. She said it was as if she were reading about the boy she raised.

  13. I apologize - this is off topic. I need to purge, and document, yet another hypocrisy and atrocity; I can't wait for the exact post under which this comment will fit. Thank you! [I have a life (ha-ha)]

    The following is an atrocity because words are used to oppress certain segments of a population.

    Please click on my name and you'll see a video on "Land of Gazillion Adoptees" site wherein the illustrious Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao doesn't want to be called an "adoptee" but it's ok for her to constantly refer to natural families with the birth prefix, as in, birthmother, birthfather, birthcousin....

    So according to Matriarch Pavao, it's the 'ole, "Don't do as I do trick, do as I say."

    Surely somewhere along the line of her escapades in her decades-long illustrious adoption career, in her illustrious Massachusetts, and Harvard University... that she's so proud of, she must have gotten wind that this prefix is insulting, marginalizing, and dehumanizing and oppressive to victimized families. Do ya' think?

    Personally, I didn't need Pavao to tell me that the word, adoptee, doesn't feel right. I may have even from the beginning used the term, adopted person, and adopted people, instead (unless perhaps I was in a big hurry).

  14. Hi Renee -

    Found the brand about 3 weeks ago when my kid was looking for accessories for her friend, who has Xmas and birthday on the 24th, so she always splurges on her. I mentioned to my daughter at the time that this would probably get noticed on the blogs.

    However . . . hafta say that my kid was just really taken with their products. She dismissed the name as their thing, not hers. She is adopted.

  15. Lindsey, I agree with you that a lot of bad parenting seems to be clustered in certain generations.

  16. What excites me most about this research are its implications for the future treatment of a number of diseases that affect the brain and immune system. I do find the concept of cell migration and the fact that cells can be transmitted through generations interesting. It prompts me to muse on how much it takes to become a separate individual and yet continue to be a "piece of the continent, a part of the main".

    When it comes to describing deep emotions and feelings of connectedness, my personal preference is for the time-honoured word "visceral", which I prefer to "cellular" because viscera do actually feel and reflect emotions in a recognizable way, whereas individual cells, no matter how important a part they may play in our development, are not exactly accessible as 'feeling' parts of the self.
    Besides, I associate the word "cellular" with phones.

    Others may see no difficulty in identifying on a personal level with their individual cells. If it pleases them to use the word "cellular" to describe their innermost feelings, who am I to say them nay? The language police place too much faith in the talismanic power of words.

  17. Lindsey, I agree with what what you say about Pavao's use of language. How can she not be aware that the preface "birth" is not welcome in all quarters? But I guess it would be weird for her to refer to her "adopted sister" etc., and she does the opposite. Were you able to leave her a comment?

    I used to shy away from "adoptee" but it appeared that no one was taking umbrage and so I use it, but somewhat sparingly, I hope, and actually try to write around it whenever possible. Labels do make it easier to identify who's who, but they can be demeaning. John Triseliotis, the British expert on all things adoption and reunion, never used the word. People were "adopted individuals" and the like. But just like "interviewee" is the person interviewed....

    Birth mother remains a problem because of the internet and the terms that people are familiar with. The "birth mother" term is so widespread, you hardly ever hear anyone in general conversation say: natural mother. I'd love to see that term come back into wide usage. First mother is making headway, and I hope we at First Mother Forum have had some small part in that.

    The AAC needs to get with the program too.

    I hope you've come back to see my comment, I was slow to make it. I can't get rid of a sinus condition.



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