Stress during pregnancy affects fetal brain development, study finds


According to a new study, stress during pregnancy can impact a baby’s brain development. File photo by sfam_photo/Shutterstock

April 29 (UPI) — Babies born to people with high levels of anxiety, depression and stress during pregnancy see changes in key brain characteristics that affect cognitive development at 18 months, according to a study published Friday.

Based on magnetic resonance imaging scans of the brains of babies included in the study, those whose mothers reported high levels of stress during pregnancy had evidence of larger left hippocampus volumes, showed data released Friday by JAMA Network Open.

The hippocampus helps the brain process information and controls memory. The left hippocampus has been linked to brain function, learning and mental illness, according to research.

While in the womb, the babies, still fetuses, saw changes in the volume of the left hippocampus, which could explain the neurodevelopmental problems seen after birth, the researchers said.

After they are born and grow, these children may experience persistent social-emotional problems and have difficulty forming positive relationships with others, including their mothers, researchers say.

“By identifying pregnant women with high levels of psychological distress, clinicians could recognize babies at risk for later neurodevelopmental disorders,” study co-author Catherine Limperopoulos said in a press release.

These children “could benefit from early and targeted interventions,” said Limperopoulos, chief and director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC.

About one in four pregnant people suffer from stress-related symptoms, the most common pregnancy complication, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Stress among pregnant women may have been higher during the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to an increase in babies born with developmental delays, studies indicate.

For this study, Limperopoulos and his colleagues followed 97 pregnant women and their babies.

All of the pregnant participants were in good health, most had some level of education and were employed, the researchers said.

The researchers used validated self-report questionnaires to measure anxiety, depression and stress in pregnant participants, they said.

According to the researchers, fetal brain volumes were measured from three-dimensional reconstructed images derived from MRI scans.

Brain development at 18 months of age was measured using validated scales and ratings, the researchers said.

In addition to the effects of maternal stress during pregnancy, the findings suggest that persistent psychological distress after the baby is born may influence parent-child interaction, they said.

An earlier study by the same team found that anxiety in pregnant women appears to affect the brain development of their babies.

Other previous research has found that maternal mental health alters the structure and biochemistry of the developing fetal brain.

Collectively, the evidence points to the importance of mental health support for pregnant women, the researchers said.

“We envision changing the healthcare paradigm and embracing these changes more broadly to better support moms,” Limperopoulos said.

“What is clear is that early interventions could help mothers reduce their stress, which can have a positive impact on their symptoms and therefore on their baby long after birth,” she said.

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