Study finds pregnancy stress affects fetal brain development

(ORDO NEWS) — Babies born to people who experience increased levels of anxiety, depression and stress during pregnancy show changes at 18 months in key brain characteristics that affect cognitive development, a study published Friday showed.

Babies whose mothers reported high levels of stress during pregnancy showed an increase in left hippocampal volume, according to magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of children included in the study, data published Friday in JAMA Network Open showed.

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

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

After being born and growing into toddlers, these children may experience ongoing socio-emotional problems and difficulty in establishing positive relationships with others, including their mothers, the researchers say.

“By identifying pregnant women with increased levels of psychological distress, clinicians can identify those children who are at risk for subsequent neurodevelopmental disorders,” study co-author Katherine Limperopoulos said in a press release.

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

About one in four pregnant women suffers 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 a rise in stunted babies, studies show.

In this study, Limperopoulos and her colleagues followed 97 pregnant women and their children.

All of the pregnant participants were healthy, most of them had some level of education and were employed, the researchers said.

According to the researchers, validated self-reported questionnaires were used to measure levels of anxiety, depression, and stress in pregnant participants.

Fetal brain volumes were measured from 3D reconstructed MRI images, the researchers said.

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

In addition to the impact of maternal stress during pregnancy, the findings suggest that persistent psychological distress after the birth of a child may influence parent-child interactions, they said.

An earlier study by the same group found that the anxiety of pregnant women affects the development of the brains of their children.

Other earlier studies have shown that maternal mental health alters the structure and biochemistry of the developing fetal brain.

All of this data highlights the importance of supporting the mental health of pregnant women, the researchers said.

“We are committed to changing the healthcare paradigm and implementing these changes on a larger scale to better support mothers,” Limperopoulos said.

“Clearly, early intervention can help mums reduce stress, which can positively impact symptoms and, by extension, the baby long after birth,” she said.

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