Maternal depression factor in fetal brain development


Depression is a disease that goes beyond the sufferer to adversely affect families and communities. Now, a new study shows that depression for a pregnant mother can also affect her developing baby.

Children of depressed parents are at an increased risk of developing depression from a combination of genetic and environmental influences. The children show changes in the amygdala, a brain structure that regulates emotion and stress.

An altered amygdala

Researchers recruited 157 pregnant women who had completed a depression questionnaire during their 26th week of pregnancy. Within two weeks of birth, newborns underwent MRI scanning to ascertain the structure of their amygdala and diffusion tensor imaging scans to determine the integrity of the amygdala’s pattern of neural connections.

The volume of the amygdala did not differ between the babies of mothers with and without depression. However, researchers found significantly reduced structural connectivity in the right amygdala of infants of mothers with high levels of depression. The microstructure was, in fact, abnormal.

Immediate screening and intervention

The changes must have happened while in utero, during fetal development. This finding suggests that maternal depression might contribute to a lifelong increase in the vulnerability to mental illness and depression. As a result, researchers suggest that a mental health screening for pregnant women should be included in standard medical evaluations of expectant mothers' health. Interventions should begin as early as possible during pregnancy.

"Attention to maternal health during pregnancy is an extremely high priority for society for many reasons," said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "The notion that maternal depression might influence the brain development of their babies is very concerning. The good news is that this risk might be reduced by systematic screening of pregnant women for depression and initiating effective treatment."

Sources: MedicalNewsToday, Biological Psychiatry


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