Stress during pregnancy can have serious consequences for your unborn baby’s brain development, a new study linking stress to reduced cognitive development shows.
According to the new study by US researchers Not only is there maternal stress, depression and anxiety negatively impact babies’ cognitive performance, but also lead to poor ability to manage emotional responses during parenthood.
In the first study, the Shedding light on a link between brain development in utero and long-term cognitive developmental consequences of high levels of stress, researchers at Children’s National Hospital in Washington DC studied about 97 pregnant women and their babies. 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 self-reported questionnaires. Fetal brain volume and cortical convolution were measured using 3D images derived from MRI scans. The children’s neurological development was measured at 18 months of age.
While still in the womb, the researchers observed changes in sulcus depth (folds in the outer part of the brain) and left hippocampal volume, which is linked to memory performance in the brain. The changes suggest diminished cognitive development seen after birth.
Researchers say that once these children grow into toddlers, they may have ongoing social-emotional problems and have difficulty finding positive ones Build relationships with others, including their mothers. The results also suggest that prolonged psychological stress after the baby is born can affect parent-infant interaction and the infant’s self-regulation.
The lead researcher writes in the American Medical Association (JAMA) network Yao Wu and colleagues said, although the exact incidence of mental health disorders in pregnant women is not known, it is likely underestimated.
“In this study, all pregnant participants were healthy and had low-risk pregnancies, most were well educated and employed, and most lived in areas (like Washington DC) with good access to health care. Despite these seemingly favorable conditions, 36% of the participants crossed the positivity threshold for stress, anxiety, and depression.”
They said the results showed that prenatal maternal distress “may not be transient, but rather persists through the postnatal period with subsequent influences on both parent-infant interaction and infant self-regulation.”
“Furthermore, we found that prenatal maternal stress, even when it did not reach the severity of a mental disorder, was associated with was associated with a decrease in the infant’s cognitive functioning. This result is consistent with results from previous studies showing cognitive impairment in children after early exposure to maternal stress.
“Specifically, our results suggest that this association is mediated in part by the volume of the fetus’s left hippocampus will. Our results suggest that although the prevalence of prenatal maternal distress in our cohort may not be as high as in the high-risk population, its association with outcomes for infants cannot be ignored.”
Researcher Catherine Limperopoulos, who heads the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National Hospital, said by identifying pregnant women with increased psychological stress, “clinicians could identify those babies who are at risk for later neurodevelopmental disorders and could benefit from early, targeted interventions.” “
Regardless of their socioeconomic status, about one in four pregnant women suffer from stress-related symptoms, the most common complication of pregnancy. The relationship between altered fetal brain development, maternal prenatal psychological distress, and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes remains unknown.
Researchers noted that studying fetal brain development in utero presents challenges due to fetal and maternal movements, imaging technology, and signals brings with it problems with signal-to-noise ratio and changes in brain growth.
The latest study builds on earlier work by the Brain Institute, led by Limperopoulos, which discovered that anxiety in pregnant women appears to affect their babies’ brain development. Her team also found that maternal mental health, even in women of high socioeconomic status, alters the structure and biochemistry of the developing fetal brain. The growing body of evidence underscores the importance of mental health support for pregnant women.
“We are seeking a paradigm shift in healthcare and are embracing these changes more broadly to better support mothers. What is clear is that early interventions can help mothers reduce their stress, which can have a positive impact on their symptoms and, in turn, on their baby long after birth,” said Limperopoulos.
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