Does pregnancy affect the development of allergies in childhood?

The increased prevalence of childhood asthma and allergies has been associated with changes in environmental and exposure factors, but they only explain part of the growing burden of disease. Certain factors during pregnancy may contribute to the development of allergic diseases in childhood. The topic is largely unexplored.

Published: 6.10.2022
Writer: Minna Lukkarinen
Picture: Pasi Leino


Asthma and allergies are chronic pediatric diseases that are a growing problem in western countries. More research into the causes and development of these diseases is needed. Researchers have long assumed that, together with genetic predisposition, certain factors during pregnancy may affect the formation of the immune system of the fetus. However, research knowledge on this issue is still limited since the study of atopic diseases – asthma, food and dust allergies, and atopic eczema – has, to date, largely focused on exposures after birth.

In the studies for my doctoral dissertation, I found that infants manifested risk factors for asthma already under the age of one, and the risk factors varied depending on the type of asthma they would subsequently develop by school age. The clearly differing risk profiles prior to the age of one led to the conclusion that something must have occurred already before birth. As usual in research, one finding opened up new questions, and I wanted to further investigate the chain of events.

Following my dissertation in 2017, I started as a postdoctoral researcher within a large-scale Turku-based research project, the FinnBrain Birth Cohort Study. In the population-based pregnancy cohort study, approximately 4,000 children and their parents are being followed up, starting from early pregnancy. The research is focused on the development of the brain, nervous system and health in childhood.

Being a prospective, multi- and interdisciplinary research project, FinnBrain allows us to address a wide range of interesting research questions. My post-doc project involved the setting up of the lab for pediatric research, FinnBrain Pediatrics. The FinnBrain Atopy sub-study focuses on what was my original research question, in other words, which factors during pregnancy might influence the development of atopic disorders in childhood.


FinnBrain Atopy seeks to identify early risk factors

The FinnBrain Atopy research will hopefully yield special and unique information. Our aim is to investigate whether the mother’s stress during pregnancy or the parents’ own childhood stress is associated with the offspring’s asthma and allergy risk. The long-term target of our research is to promote the well-being of families. The research findings may potentially provide us with tools to advance children’s health already prior to or during pregnancy.

However, we still have a long way to go before we have access to new tools for the prevention of atopic disorders. First, we need to look for associations. Once we have found relevant associations, we can start seeking mechanisms. Then, upon finding a mechanism, it’s time to talk about the prevention of diseases. It is a long but interesting process.

The FinnBrain Pediatrics and FinnBrain Atopy data materials were gathered during the years 2018–2021, when the subjects were five years of age. The pediatric follow-up data covers 1,000 children. The accumulated birth cohort material thus serves as a valuable resource for current research. FinnBrain Atopy seeks to investigate, for example, in what ways parental stress – that is, the stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy or the father in his own childhood – or diverse factors in the living environment or the child’s own psychological symptoms are associated with the development of atopic diseases in children.

Using a mechanistic approach, we aim to explore if any differences in the epigenetic regulation of genes can be identified between the children with allergies or asthma and the healthy controls, and if they are associated with maternal stress during pregnancy or paternal stress in childhood. This might indicate the programming of allergies during pregnancy.


Data analysis is a highpoint of research work

It is great to have the FinnBrain Atopy data material ready and accessible. I can now focus on my original research questions and start planning new ones. Data analysis is a highpoint of research work. The moment when you have the first results available and discover if anything particular stands out is one of the rewarding moments in research!

I would like to thank the Sakari Alhopuro Foundation for supporting our research project. During my post-doc project, I have repeatedly applied for grants and project funding. Lucky for me, the financiers have believed in my ideas and provided the funding necessary for my research. I encourage young scientists to come up with new research ideas and apply for grant funding for their projects.


Minna Lukkarinen


Minna Lukkarinen, MD, PhD, is the responsible researcher for the FinnBrain Pediatrics sub-studies. She earned her PhD from the University of Turku in 2017, with a dissertation concerning the risk factors of asthma in early childhood. Since then, she has been involved in the FinnBrain Birth Cohort Study and a number of linked research projects. Lukkarinen’s research is focused on, for example, the development of atopic diseases in childhood. Working as a Specialist in Pediatrics at the TYKS Pediatric and Adolescent Clinic, she treats children suffering from allergies and asthma. In addition to her clinical work and research, Lukkarinen serves as the Executive Director of TYKS Foundation.






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