A Mother’s Stress during Pregnancy May Influence a Baby’s Brain Development

A Mother’s Stress during Pregnancy May Influence a Baby’s Brain Development

By Jim Windell

            None of us probably believe that the stress experienced by pregnant mothers is actually good for the babies they are carrying. On the other hand, perhaps many people may think that a mother’s stress will have no direct effect on a fetus.

           But a research team led by the University of Edinburgh may beg to differ with anyone who dismisses a mother’s stress as being inconsequential for a yet-to-be born baby.

           The new study, published in the journal eLife, is the first time that scientists have used an objective measure – in this case, levels of the hormone cortisol -- in the mother to study links with baby brain development. Cortisol is involved in the body's response to stress -- with higher levels indicating higher stress. Cortisol also plays a role in fetal growth.

           For the study, lead researcher, Professor James Boardman, Director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, and his colleagues took hair samples from 78 pregnant women to determine the women's levels of cortisol in the previous three months. The women's babies then underwent a series of brain scans using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a non-invasive scan that took place while the babies were sleeping.

           What they found was that higher levels of cortisol in the mother's hair were linked to structural changes in the infants' amygdala as well as differences in brain connections. Levels of cortisol, these researchers found, are linked to the development of the baby's amygdala, an area of the brain known to be involved in emotional and social development in childhood. This finding could explain why children whose mothers experienced high levels of stress during pregnancy may be more likely to have emotional issues in later life.

          While this is not exactly a new finding, previous research showing that maternal stress influences the development of a child's behavior and ability to regulate emotions was usually measured by questionnaires, which are not always reliable.

           Dr. Boardman said, “Our findings are a call to action to detect and support pregnant women who need extra help during pregnancy as this could be an effective way of promoting healthy brain development in their babies."

            Boardman and his team add that pregnant women who feel stressed or unwell should seek help from their doctor or other health professionals and that with support, their stress could be managed during pregnancy.

             Professor Rebecca Reynolds, Personal Chair of Metabolic Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who co-led the study, said: "Thankfully, psychological treatments are very successful at helping mothers and children and we hope that our findings could guide therapies in future to help spot those who might be most in need of support."

          Stress, particularly high levels of stress, during pregnancy seems to have a direct bearing on the health and emotional life of a baby after birth. But helping pregnant women cope with stress is an important step to ensure that both the mother and the baby thrive.

          To read the original journal article, go to:

           David Q Stoye, Manuel Blesa, Gemma Sullivan, Paola Galdi, Gillian J Lamb, Gill S Black, Alan J Quigley, Michael J Thrippleton, Mark E Bastin, Rebecca M Reynolds, James P Boardman. Maternal cortisol is associated with neonatal amygdala microstructure and connectivity in a sexually dimorphic mannereLife, 2020; 9 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.60729

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