Study finds stress, anxiety and depression during pregnancy can hamper cognitive development in offspring

Washington: According to a new study from Children’s National Hospital, increased stress, anxiety and depression in pregnant women altered key features of the fetal brain, subsequently leading to decreased cognitive development in offspring at 18 months of age. The results of the investigation were published in the journal ‘JAMA Network’.

The researchers followed a cohort of 97 pregnant women and their babies. The changes also increased internalizing and dysregulating behavior. The findings further suggest that persistent psychological distress after the baby is born may influence parent-child interaction and the baby’s self-regulation.

This is the first study to shed light on an important link between altered fetal brain development in the womb and long-term cognitive developmental consequences for fetuses exposed to high levels of toxic stress during pregnancy. While in utero, the researchers observed changes in the sulcus depth and volume of the left hippocampus, which could explain the neurodevelopmental problems seen after birth.

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Once they become young children, these children may experience persistent social-emotional problems and have difficulty establishing positive relationships with others, including their mothers. To confirm this, future studies with a larger sample size reflecting more regions and populations are needed.

By identifying pregnant women with elevated levels of psychological distress, clinicians could recognize babies who are at risk for later neurodevelopmental impairment and could benefit from early and targeted interventions, said Catherine Limperopoulos, PhD, chief and director of the Institute on the Developing Brain at National Children’s and lead author of the study.

Regardless of socioeconomic status, about one in four pregnant women experience stress-related symptoms, the most common complication of pregnancy. The relationship between impaired fetal brain development, prenatal maternal psychological distress, and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes remains unknown.

Studying fetal brain development in the womb poses challenges due to fetal and maternal movements, imaging technology, signal-to-noise ratio issues, and changes in brain growth.

Also read: Self-care for mothers: Pressures of motherhood can take a toll on women’s mental health, experts say

All pregnant participants were healthy, most had some level of education, and were employed. To quantify maternal prenatal stress, anxiety, and depression, the researchers used validated self-report questionnaires.

Fetal brain volumes and cortical folding were measured from reconstructed three-dimensional images derived from MRIs. Fetal brain creatine and choline were quantified by proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. The neurodevelopment of the 18-month-old child was measured using validated scales and assessments.

This study builds on previous work from the Limperopoulos-led Developing Brain Institute, which found that anxiety in pregnant women appears to affect their babies’ brain development. Her team also found that maternal mental health, even for women of high socioeconomic status, alters the structure and biochemistry of the developing fetal brain. Mounting evidence underscores the importance of mental health support for pregnant women.

We’re looking to shift the paradigm of health care and embrace these changes more broadly to better support moms, Limperopoulos said. What is clear is that early interventions could help moms reduce their stress, which can have a positive impact on their symptoms and thus their baby long after birth.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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