| 13.6°C Dublin

Pregnancy risks for older women blamed on missing protein

Scientists made a major step towards understanding why older women are more likely to produce abnormal eggs, increasing the risk of infertility, miscarriage and birth defects such as Down's Syndrome, it was announced today.

While researchers have long known that women having babies in their late 30s and 40s posed an increased risk of disability due to eggs containing the wrong number of chromosomes, the underlying cause has not been known.

But research by Newcastle University has shed new light on why this happens.

The key is declining levels of proteins called Cohesins, which hold chromosomes together by entrapping them in a ring. This is essential for chromosomes to split evenly when cells divide.

All the cells in the body, except for sperm and eggs, contain two copies of each chromosome. Sperm and eggs must lose exactly one copy in preparation for fertilisation.


This halving of chromosome number requires a complex form of cell division.

In the study, researchers used eggs from young and old mice to show that Cohesin levels decline gradually as females get older.

This results in weakened cohesion between chromosomes and failure to divide equally during the halving of chromosome number in eggs of older females.

By tracking chromosomes during division in the egg, the team found that the reduced Cohesin in eggs from older females resulted in some chromosomes becoming trapped and unable to divide properly.

Eggs that are defective in this way may fail to develop resulting in infertility, or they may give rise to a pregnancy with a high risk of miscarriage, or to the birth of a baby with Down's Syndrome.

Dr Herbert said: "The aged mice we used are equivalent to a woman in her early forties.

"Cohesin levels were very much reduced in eggs from older mice and the chromosomes underwent a very messy division resulting in the wrong number of chromosomes being retained in the egg."

"If we can understand this, we will be in a better position to know if there is any possibility of developing interventions to help reduce Cohesin loss," she said.