For a long time we thought the placenta was this ironclad Protector of The Fetus. But then we learned that this revered organ wasn’t, in fact, strong enough to fend off the likes of alcohol, drugs and persistent chemicals. Now it was just this faulty, bloody filter unable to handle the toxic demands of a our modern world.
I always felt kind of bad about this. I like the placenta. It’s the only temporary organ, for one thing. But it’s also this amazing vascular conduit between mother and fetus– this literal and symbolic connection, the inter-meshing of two bodies, that are, for some time, one. So I was thrilled to read a piece in the Scientific American about how the role of the ‘afterbirth’ is being reexamined and given some due respect.
“The placenta has been vastly under-appreciated. Scientists are taking a closer look and finding that it is much more than a simple conduit: it actively protects the fetus and shapes neurological development.”
One study with mice showed that when mom is undernourished the placenta actually takes over and breaks down it’s own tissue to provide nourishment for the fetal brain. Also this:
“Scientists at the University of Southern California’s Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute (ZNI) and their colleagues, meanwhile, upended decades of biological dogma when they reported that it is the placenta—not the mother—that provides the hormone serotonin to the fetus’s fore-brain early in development. Because hormones play an essential role in brain wiring, even before they function as neurotransmitters in the brain, placental abnormalities could directly influence the risk of developing depression, anxiety and even autism.”
The emerging field of research into the role of the placental hormones in fetal brain development has been dubbed, “neuroplacentology” by a Stanford neurobiologist. It’ll be interesting to see what they discover and how this might impact our understanding and handling of pregnancy.
Read my thoughts on eating the placenta here.