Scientists Discover Children’s Cells Living in Mothers’ Brains

By Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo

Lifesized 8 week-old fetus
Lifesized model of an 8 week-old fetus. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The connection between mother and child is physical and psychological, and may be even deeper than previously thought. According to Scientific American, “cells may migrate through the placenta between the mother and the fetus, taking up residence in many organs of the body including the lung, thyroid muscle, liver, heart, kidney and skin” — and apparently, the brain. The article is excellent, though this part is confusing:

“They examined the brains of deceased women for the presence of cells containing the male “Y” chromosome. They found such cells in more than 60 percent of the brains and in multiple brain regions. Since Alzheimer’s disease is more common in women who have had multiple pregnancies, they suspected that the number of fetal cells would be greater in women with AD compared to those who had no evidence for neurological disease. The results were precisely the opposite: there were fewer fetal-derived cells in women with Alzheimer’s. The reasons are unclear.”

So, pregnancies give you more fetal-cells-in-the-brain, and multiple pregnancies give you more Alzheimer’s, but Alzheimer’s women had less fetal-cells-in-the-brain. Don’t get it.

Turns out the paper is pretty weak in terms of Alzheimer’s findings, which would need to be replicated and explained. The interesting thing is that this is the first time male DNA has been found in the human female brain. Amanda Schaffer’s take on the paper and some related work at the Daily Beast explores these topics thoroughly.

“The fetus has a vested interest in keeping its mother alive,” not only while it’s in utero but for many years to come. It could be that “the fetus is giving these cells to its mother to promote her healing.” I found this really cute, in a nature-isn’t-cute-it-just-wants-you-to-survive kind of way (maybe the fact that I find it cute is in itself evolutionarily cute?).

Also, no female cells in male brains? From their mother when they were fetuses? Has this been studied and not found, or just not studied at all?

Y chromosome markers are easier to spot in women; this shows that the DNA wasn’t the woman’s own and would have to come from a male fetus. And apparently researchers have found maternal DNA all over fetuses’ bodies, so in theory, men could have cells from mom lodged in their brains as well. All of it sounds insane.

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