New Research Shows That Maternal Stress Before & During Pregnancy Can Affect Baby's Brain Development

Researchers have found a relationship between women who deal with stress during pregnancy and the impaired development of a white matter tract in babies. The white matter tract has been implicated in anxiety disorders and the people who have anxiety disorders have changes in the tract.

MRC Doctoral Researcher in Perinatal Imaging and Health, Alexandra Lautarescu and Head of Advanced Neuroimaging, Professor Serena Counsell looked at the relationship between maternal stress and brain development in babies. She studied the relationship by evaluating 251 premature babies. They found evidence for the impaired development of a white matter tract, the uncinate fasciculus, in babies whose mothers experienced more stress in the prenatal period.

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Lautarescu and Counsell created a questionnaire that was given to the mothers. The questionnaire asked them about their experiences of stressful events. Some of the events included mild stress such as moving or taking a test. Other events were more severe such as a divorce or the death of a loved one. Each of the stressors had a score based on the severity. The researchers then used a medical imaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging that was specifically developed to look at the structure of the white matter. The white matter tract has previously been implicated in anxiety disorders -- adults that have an anxiety disorder may show changes in this tract.


Lautarescu said, "We found that in the mums that were more stressed during pregnancy and the period before birth, white matter was altered in the babies." The scientists believe that this study really shows the importance of providing proper support for women who are pregnant. Other studies have shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy can help reduce the adverse outcomes in babies. It is especially essential for women to receive the proper support if they deal with a severe stressor during pregnancy that might cause negative effects on their baby. The researchers shared that not all pregnant women are asked by their doctors if they have developed anxiety or depressive symptoms. "It is not diagnosed as often as it should be during pregnancy and we are trying to emphasize that maternal mental health during pregnancy can impact the baby's brain development which may impact on their outcomes later in life," Alexandra Lautarescu said. "No one is asking these women about stress and hence they don't receive any support."

Lautarescu went on to say that "Antenatal services need to be aware that it is important to think about stress of the mums and we need to have some kind of support there for the mums who identify that they are stressed. If we try to help these women either during the pregnancy or in the early postnatal period with some sort of intervention this will not only help the mother, but may also prevent impaired brain development in the baby and improve their outcomes overall." The researchers believe that a more comprehensive study should be researched to see if the changes in the brain development will affect them later on in life.

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