Increased maternal stress, anxiety and depression can alter key features of the fetal brain, leading to reduced cognitive development in 18-month-olds, according to a new study by Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
The findings were published in the journal JAMA Network. The researchers followed a group of 97 pregnant women and their babies. These changes also increased internalizing and deregulatory behaviors. The findings further suggest that ongoing psychological distress in infants after birth may affect parent-child interaction and infant self-regulation.
This is the first study to explain the important link between change in the development of the unborn fetal brain and the long-term cognitive developmental consequences of fetuses exposed to high levels of toxic stress during pregnancy. In the womb, the researchers observed changes in sulcus depth and left hippocampal volume, which may explain neurodevelopmental problems that arise after birth.
Once grown up, these children may experience persistent socio-emotional problems and have difficulty developing positive relationships with others, including their mothers. To further confirm this, future studies are needed with larger sample sizes reflecting more regions and populations.
“By identifying pregnant women with higher levels of psychological distress, clinicians can identify those infants at risk of later neurodevelopmental disorders and can benefit from earlier targeted interventions,” said Kathryn Limpe, director and director of the Development Foundation of the Brain, says Dr. Ropoulos is a Children’s Nation and senior author of the study.
Regardless of their socioeconomic status, about one in four pregnant women suffer from stress-related symptoms, the most common pregnancy complication. The relationship between change in fetal brain development, maternal prenatal distress, and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes remains unknown.
Studying fetal brain development in the womb presents challenges due to fetal and maternal movements, imaging techniques, signal-to-noise ratio issues, and changes in brain growth.
All pregnant participants were healthy, and most had some level of education and jobs. To measure maternal prenatal stress, anxiety, and depression, the researchers used valid self-report questionnaires.
Reconstructed three-dimensional images from MRI scans measure fetal brain volume and cortical folding. Fetal brain creatine and choline were measured using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Use of validated scales and assessments to measure neurodevelopment in 18-month-olds.
The research builds on previous work by the Limperopoulos-led Brain Development Institute, which found that maternal anxiety appears to affect infant brain development. Her team also found that even in women of higher socioeconomic status, maternal mental health can alter the structure and biochemistry of the fetal brain. Increasing evidence highlights the importance of mental health support for pregnant women.
“We are looking at changing the healthcare model and adopting those changes more widely to better support mothers,” said Limperopoulos. “It is clear that early intervention can help mothers reduce stress, which can have a positive effect on their symptoms, which can affect their babies long after birth.”