Researchers in the United Kingdom (UK) have said that infants’ brains may be shaped by levels of stress their mother experienced during pregnancy. This was part of the findings of a new study published in the journal, ‘eLife’.
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 suggested.
The findings highlighted the urgent need for women to be better supported with their mental and physical health before and during pregnancy, and could help spot mums and babies who needed help.
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.
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. Amygdala is the area of the brain known to be involved in emotional and social development in childhood.
The study was funded by the global children’s charity, ‘Theirworld.’ Lead researcher of the study, Prof. James Boardman 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.”
Boardman is the director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the MRC Centre for Re-productive Health, University of Edinburgh. Cortisol is involved in the body’s response to stress, with higher levels indicating higher stress, and also plays a role in fetal growth.
The research teams led by the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, showed that levels of cortisol are linked to the development of the baby’s amygdala, the ‘Science Daily’ reported.
The scientists took hair samples from 78 pregnant women to determine the women’s levels of cortisol in the previous three months. The women’s babies underwent a series of brain scans using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a noninvasive scan that took place whilst the baby slept. Prof. 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.”