Babies' brain development could be affected by mothers’ prenatal stress

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A study highlights the importance of having mental health resources in place for expectant mothers

While previous studies have explored the countless ways stress affects the body, a new study conducted by researchers from King’s College London has discovered how the stress felt by expectant mothers can also affect their newborns. 

The study found that babies’ brain development could be compromised due to their mothers’ stress both before and during pregnancy. 

“It is not diagnosed as often as it should be during pregnancy and we are trying to emphasise that maternal mental health during pregnancy can impact the baby’s brain development which may impact on their outcomes later in life,” said researcher Alexandra Lautarescu. “No one is asking these women about stress and hence they don’t receive any support.” 

Developing brain health

The researchers evaluated over 250 premature babies and their mothers to determine how stress levels affected development.

The study had two parts: first, the mothers reported on their stress levels by filling out questionnaires regarding how frequently they experienced a wide spectrum of stressful events. Following childbirth, the researchers analyzed images of newborns’ brains to better understand how stress affected their neural development.

The researchers found that the presence of more high-level stressors during pregnancy led to more babies born with deficiencies to a white matter tract in the brain known as uncinate fasciculus. When functioning normally, white matter works to send and receive messages between brain cells. When that tract is compromised, the researchers discovered that it can create an increased risk of several mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorders, depression, Alzheimer’s, and other conditions. 

Overall, the researchers are hoping that these findings bring to light a serious issue plaguing pregnant women that is going undetected more times than not. If properly assessed, the researchers say mothers and their babies could benefit greatly from increased support.

“Antenatal services need to be aware that it is important to think about the stress of the mums and we need to have some kind of support there for the mums who identify that they are stressed,” said Lautarescu. “If we try to help these women either during the pregnancy or in the early post-natal 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.” 

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