Stress, depression during pregnancy could affect brain development of babies –Study
Researchers from Children’s National Hospital, an affiliate with the George Washington University School of Medicine, United States, have in a new study found that babies born to mothers who underwent stress, anxiety and depression during pregnancy may have impaired brain development at 18 months.
The researchers in the study published in ScienceDaily followed a cohort of 97 pregnant women and their babies and found that women’s elevated anxiety, depression and stress levels during pregnancy altered key features of the foetal brain.
This, according to the researchers, subsequently decreased their offspring’s cognitive development at 18 months.
The findings further suggest that persistent psychological distress after the baby is born may influence the parent-child interaction and infant self-regulation
The study, the researchers noted, was the first to shed light on an important link between altered in-utero foetal brain development and the long-term cognitive development consequences for foetuses exposed to high levels of toxic stress during pregnancy.
While in the womb, the researchers observed changes in the sulcal depth and left hippocampal volume, which could explain the neurodevelopment issues seen after birth.
According to the researchers, once they grow into toddlers, these children may experience persistent social-emotional problems and have difficulty establishing positive relationships with others, including their mothers.
Commenting on the study, Senior Study Author and Director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National Hospital, Dr. Catherine Limperopoulos, said by identifying the pregnant women with elevated levels of psychological distress, clinicians could recognize those babies who are at risk for later neurodevelopmental impairment and might benefit from early, targeted interventions.
“Regardless of their socioeconomic status, about one of every four pregnant women suffers from stress-related symptoms, the most common pregnancy complication. The relationship between altered foetal brain development, prenatal maternal psychological distress and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes remain unknown.
“Studying in utero foetal brain development poses challenges due to foetal and maternal movements, imaging technology, signal-to-noise ratio issues and changes in brain growth.
“All pregnant participants were healthy, most had some level of education and were employed. To quantify prenatal maternal stress, anxiety and depression, the researchers used validated self-reported questionnaires.
“Fetal brain volumes and cortical folding were measured from three-dimensional reconstructed images derived from MRI scans. Foetal brain creatine and choline were quantified using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. The 18-month child neurodevelopment was measured using validated scales and assessments”, Limperopoulos said.
The senior author also said, “We’re looking at shifting the health care paradigm and adopting these changes more broadly to better support mothers.
“What’s clear is early interventions could help moms reduce their stress, which can positively impact their symptoms and thereby their baby long after birth.”
The study, according to the researchers builds upon previous work from the Developing Brain Institute led by Limperopoulos which discovered that anxiety in pregnant women appears to affect the brain development of their babies.
The researchers affirmed that her team also found that maternal mental health, even for women with high socioeconomic status, alters the structure and biochemistry of the developing foetal brain.
They noted that the growing evidence underscores the importance of mental health support for pregnant women.
Reacting to the study, a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Dr. Joseph Akinde said pregnant women who are too stressed might end up having premature labour which may come sooner than expected.
Dr. Akinde warned that stress and lack of rest usually have adverse effects on pregnancy.
“Again, they could develop complications in pregnancy like hypertension that may even lead to pre-eclampsia and claim their lives.
“The truth of the matter is that when you are stressed, you will have elevated blood pressure. And we know that hypertensive disorder in pregnancy is one of the real causes of maternal and infant mortality in Nigeria,” he noted.
The World Health Organisation says improving care for women during pregnancy and around the time of childbirth to prevent and treat pre-eclampsia and eclampsia is a necessary step towards the achievement of the health targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.