Teratology

Teratology is the study of abnormalities of physiological development. It is often thought of as the study of human congenital abnormalities, but it is broader than that, taking into account other non-birth developmental stages, including puberty; and other organisms, including plants. The related term developmental toxicity includes all manifestations of abnormal development that are caused by environmental insult. These may include growth retardation, delayed mental development or other congenital disorders without any structural malformations.

As early as the 17th century, teratology referred to a discourse on prodigies and marvels of anything so extraordinary as to seem abnormal. In the 19th century it acquired a meaning more closely related to biological deformities, mostly in the field of botany. Currently, its most instrumental meaning is that of the medical study of teratogenesis, congenital malformations or individuals with significant malformations. Historically, people have used many pejorative terms to describe/label cases of significant physical malformations. In the 1960s David W. Smith of the University of Washington Medical School (one of the researchers who became known in 1973 for the discovery of fetal alcohol syndrome), popularized the term teratology. With the growth of understanding of the origins of birth defects, the field of teratology as of 2015 overlaps with other fields of science, including developmental biology, embryology, and genetics. Until the 1940s teratologists regarded birth defects as primarily hereditary. In 1941 the first well-documented cases of environmental agents being the cause of severe birth defects were reported.

The access of adverse influences to developing tissues depends on the nature of the influence. Several factors affect the ability of a teratogen to contact a developing conceptus, such as the nature of the agent itself, route and degree of maternal exposure, rate of placental transfer and systemic absorption, and composition of the maternal and embryonic/fetal genotypes.

Studies designed to test the teratogenic potential of environmental agents use animal model systems (e.g., rat, mouse, rabbit, dog, and monkey). Early teratologists exposed pregnant animals to environmental agents and observed the fetuses for gross visceral and skeletal abnormalities. While this is still part of the teratological evaluation procedures today, the field of Teratology is moving to a more molecular level, seeking the mechanism(s) of action by which these agents act. Genetically modified mice are commonly used for this purpose. In addition, pregnancy registries are large, prospective studies that monitor exposures women receive during their pregnancies and record the outcome of their births. These studies provide information about possible risks of medications or other exposures in human pregnancies.

Understanding how a teratogen causes its effect is not only important in preventing congenital abnormalities but also has the potential for developing new therapeutic drugs safe for use with pregnant women.

In humans, vaccination has become readily available, and is important to the prevention of some diseases like polio, rubella, and smallpox, among others. There has been no association between congenital malformations and vaccination, as shown in Finland in which expecting mothers received the oral polio vaccine and saw no difference in infant outcomes than mothers who had not received the vaccine. However, it is still not recommended to vaccinate for polio while pregnant unless there is risk of infection. Another important implication of this includes the ability to get the influenza vaccine while pregnant. During the 1918 and 1957 influenza pandemics, mortality in pregnant women was 45%. However, even with prevention through vaccination, influenza vaccination in pregnant women remains low at 12%. Munoz et al. demonstrated that there was no adverse outcomes observed in the new infants or mothers.

Evidence for congenital deformities found in the fossil record is studied by paleopathologists, specialists in ancient disease and injury. Fossils bearing evidence of congenital deformity are scientifically significant because they can help scientists infer the evolutionary history of life's developmental processes. For instance, because a Tyrannosaurus rex specimen has been discovered with a block vertebra, it means that vertebrae have been developing the same basic way since at least the most recent common ancestor of dinosaurs and mammals. Other notable fossil deformities include a hatchling specimen of the bird-like dinosaur, Troodon, the tip of whose jaw was twisted. Another notably deformed fossil was a specimen of the choristodere Hyphalosaurus, which had two heads- the oldest known example of polycephaly.

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