Babies' brains shaped by mother's stress during pregnancy, study finds

Babies’ brains may be shaped by the levels of stress their mother experiences during pregnancy, a study from Edinburgh University has found.
Infants’ brains may be shaped by levels of stress their mother experiences during pregnancy, the study found.Infants’ brains may be shaped by levels of stress their mother experiences during pregnancy, the study found.
Infants’ brains may be shaped by levels of stress their mother experiences during pregnancy, the study found.

Stress levels in mothers – measured by a hormone linked to anxiety and other health problems – is related to changes in areas of the infant brain associated with emotional development, the study suggests.

Doctors said the findings highlight the need for women to be better supported with their mental health before and during pregnancy, and could help clinicians spot mothers and babies who need help.

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The experts added that pregnant women who feel stressed or unwell should seek help from their midwife or consultant and that with support, most health issues can be well managed in pregnancy.

Scientists from Edinburgh University used hair samples to measure the levels of the hormone cortisol in 78 pregnant women over the previous six months.

Cortisol is involved in the body’s response to stress – with higher levels indicating higher stress – and also plays a role in foetal growth.

They then performed a series of brain scans on the women’s babies, using MRI while the babies slept.

The researchers found 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.

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The amygdala is an area of the brain known to be involved in emotional and social development in childhood.

Doctors said this could explain why children whose mothers experienced high levels of stress during pregnancy may be more likely to have emotional issues in later life, though the study did not assess emotion in children.

Lead researcher, Professor James Boardman, Director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at Edinburgh University, 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”.

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Stress in mothers is known to influence children’s behavioural development and ability to regulate their emotions.

But maternal stress is usually measured by questionnaires, which are not always reliable.

The new study is the first time that scientists have used an objective measure – levels of the hormone cortisol – in the mother to study links with baby brain development.

It was funded by the global children’s charity, Theirworld, which is chaired by Sarah Brown.

The study is published in the journal eLife.

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.”

Sarah Brown, Chair of Theirworld, said: “This research highlights how important it is to support women’s mental health during pregnancy to ensure that their needs are met and that their babies have the best start in life. Helping mothers cope with stress is an important step to ensure both mum and baby thrive.”

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