Mothers who smoke during pregnancy could damage the future fertility of their sons, a new Australian study suggests.
Researchers used mice to test the long-term effects of mothers smoking during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
“Mums who smoke when pregnant are potentially doing irreversible damage to their sons’ fertility”
They discovered that male pups exposed to cigarette toxins in the womb or early life were infertile or had problems with fertility in adulthood.
Professor Eileen McLaughlin, who led the study, said: “Our results show that male pups of ‘smoking’ mothers have fewer sperm, which swim poorly, are abnormally shaped and fail to bind to eggs during in vitro fertilisation studies.
“Consequently, when these pups reach adulthood they are subfertile or infertile,” she said.
“This is the first time we have been able to prove conclusively that male baby exposure to cigarette toxins in pregnancy and early life will damage later-life fertility,” she added.
“Although this is a study in mice, the findings are relevant to human health as many men, now in their 30s and 40s, were exposed to cigarette toxins in the womb when it was less well known that smoking affected babies’ health.
“These men have difficulty conceiving and this is associated with production of low numbers of poor quality sperm in their semen,” said Professor McLaughlin.
“Unfortunately about 25% of young women today continue to smoke when they are pregnant and/or breastfeeding – thereby potentially damaging their sons’ fertility.”
To carry out the tests, researchers exposed 27 female mice to smoke equivalent to 24 cigarettes a day in humans.
Their litter was compared to that of 27 mice exposed to normal air, with the total 108 male offspring examined through adulthood.
The findings were published in the journal Human Reproduction.
Professor Sheena Lewis, professor of reproductive medicine at Queen’s University Belfast and chair of the British Andrology Society, said: “This is a well-designed and carefully executed study.
“It was performed in an animal model as such mechanistic experiments are impossible and unethical in humans,” she said.
“However, the results are very clear. Mums who smoke when pregnant are potentially doing irreversible damage to their sons’ fertility,” she added.
“If these mums care about their sons’ future happiness and want grandchildren, they should stop smoking during pregnancy.”