Monday, August 27, 2018

Prenatal Maternal Depression, Anxiety May Alter Early Brain Development

Depression and anxiety during the third trimester of pregnancy may affect early brain development, reports a study published today in JAMA Pediatrics. The study suggests that the intensity of maternal depressive and/or anxious symptoms influences the density of the infants’ white matter—bundles of nerve fibers that connect various brain regions.

“Maternal depression and anxiety are known to adversely affect child behavioral and emotional outcomes,” wrote Douglas Dean III, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleagues. “[O]ur findings show that neural pathways may differ in these children as well.”

Dean and colleagues enrolled 149 mother-infant pairs for this neuroimaging study. The pairs were part of an ongoing clinical study examining the association between early-life experience and infant brain development. As part of this study, the mothers completed depression and anxiety questionnaires at weeks 28 and 35 of pregnancy. The investigators later took MRI scans of sleeping infants at age one month. Not all infants slept through the entire scan, so the final analysis included 101 infants (53 male, 48 female).

The investigators found a sex-specific connection between the mother’s depression and anxiety scores and infants’ white matter composition. In female infants, higher maternal depression/anxiety scores were associated with lower white matter density (which reflects fewer, less tightly packed nerve fibers) in frontal brain regions. In boys, however, higher symptom scores were associated with higher white matter density in these regions.

“Such associations may be linked to differing time courses of white matter development, with white matter in females developing earlier than in males,” Dean and colleagues wrote. “These findings do not imply that white matter in males is resilient to prenatal maternal symptoms; instead, they suggest the possibility that such microstructural alterations in males may be detected at a different time during development.”

They added, “Because of the rapid postnatal maturation of white matter and the likelihood that prenatal and postnatal influences within the first month contribute to shaping brain connectivity, it is likely that any developmental outcome that we study is the joint product of prenatal and postnatal influences.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Maternal Mental Health: Moving Mental Health Care Upstream,” by Amritha Bhat, M.D., M.P.H.

(Image: iStock/Halfpoint)


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