Stress During Pregnancy Can Affect Baby’s Brain

Is it possible that maternal stress both during and before pregnancy can have a negative effect on the brain development in the baby?

Yes, says new research from King’s College London. In a study published in Biological Psychiatry, a research team headed by Alexandra Lautarescu, MRC Doctoral Researcher and Head of Advanced Neuroimaging Professor Serena Counsell looked at the relationship between maternal stress and brain development in 251 premature babies. They believe they’ve found a connection between prenatal maternal stress and altered brain development in the babies.

Their research uncovered evidence pointing to impaired development of an important white matter tract, the uncinate fasciculus, in babies whose mothers experienced high levels of stress during the prenatal period.

The mothers were asked via a questionnaire about their experiences of stressful events, ranging from everyday stressors like moving from one home to another or taking a test or exam in school to more extreme stressors like experiencing a death in the family and the associated bereavement or marital separation or divorce. A severity score was assigned to each type of event and scores were calculated based on the number and severity of the stressors indicated.

These scores were then connected to the baby’s brains by use of a medical imaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging. This technology was developed to examine the white matter structure in the brain. Previous research has associated alterations in the white matter tract with anxiety disorders. Adults with anxiety disorders have exhibited changes in the white matter tract in the brain.

“We found that in the mums that were more stressed during pregnancy and the period before birth, white matter was altered in the babies,” said lead researcher Alexandra Lautarescu from King’s College London.

The researchers believe their study underscores the importance of providing support for expectant mothers, referring to earlier studies showing that interventions like cognitive behavioral therapies can help minimize negative outcomes for the babies. When speaking and working with expectant mothers, clinicians play a crucial role. Generally, questions about emotional states focus on depressive states and symptoms, with little discussion taking place regarding general stress and anxiety. Doctors and health care providers often miss the signs and symptoms caused by stressful life events during routine well-visits, office visits or check-ups.

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“It is not diagnosed as often as it should be during pregnancy and we are trying to emphasise that maternal mental health during pregnancy can impact the baby’s brain development which may impact on their outcomes later in life,” Alexandra Lautarescu said. “No one is asking these women about stress and hence they don’t receive any support.

“Antenatal services need to be aware that it is important to think about stress of the mums and we need to have some kind of support there for the mums who identify that they are stressed. If we try to help these women either during the pregnancy or in the early post-natal period with some sort of intervention this will not only help the mother, but may also prevent impaired brain development in the baby and improve their outcomes overall.”

Evidence suggests that adverse outcomes in babies like poor obstetric outcomes, premature birth or low birth weight may be connected to poor mental health experiences of the mothers during pregnancy. Even altered early behavior like frequent crying may be associated with a mother’s poor mental health.

More research is needed to more deeply understand whether the changes observed by researchers in the brain development of these babies will lead to more adverse outcomes later in their lives.

In the meantime, we have more evidence that expectant mothers need a little deeper attention when it comes to stress and stress management. Their babies mental health later in life may just be at stake!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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