Maternal depression linked to babies’ brain development

By Hollie Ewers on 30 August 2018 Maternal Mental health Research

Women with depression and anxiety during pregnancy may be more likely to have babies with altered brain development, a study suggests. 

However, the study was small with only 101 women taking part. 

Findings published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggest a relationship between a woman’s mental health symptoms and white matter development in her child’s brain at one month after birth.

Researchers asked 101 women to complete questionnaires about depression and anxiety symptoms during their third trimester of pregnancy.

Their answers indicated that six mothers had symptoms of major depression, five met criteria for moderate depression, and 42 had mild depression.

One month after women in the study gave birth, scientists used advanced brain imaging tools – including MRI and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) – to scan the infants’ brains while the babies were napping.

They found more alterations in brain structure among the babies born to women who experienced at least moderate levels of depression during pregnancy.

Researchers said that maternal depression and anxiety were linked to changes in what's known as white matter microstructure in the brain.

This area is similar to 'wiring', responsible for neural communication between different regions of the brain and helps control bodily movements to managing emotions.

Doug Dean, a postdoctoral fellow from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who led the analysis, said: ‘We found that kids who had mothers with higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms had imaging measures that are generally assumed to represent poorer white matter microstructure, perhaps reflecting less-developed white matter in their brains. 

‘These pathways are important to healthy brain development and are known to influence mental health outcomes later in life.’

Researchers warned there may be factors at play that were unaccounted for in this study, including genetic variables that could be assessed in the future by looking at the same phenomenon in identical and fraternal twin populations.

Access the full study here.