UW Study Finds Maternal Mental Health Impacts Infant Brain Development

August 29, 2018 | BY  And 

A study published in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics this week shows a relationship between pregnant mothers’ mental health, and certain areas of their newborn’s brain.

The study shows that there was less development of a specific part one month old infants’ brains — specifically, white matter — when mothers showed higher

UW-Madison post-doctoral fellow and leader of the study Doug Dean says white matter is crucial for development. He describes white matter as the quote “wiring” between different parts of the brain. It helps the brain process information — so it’s important not just for motor function but for managing emotions as well.

That part of the brain is called white matter because of the presence of myelin, or a type of coating on the brain’s nerve fibers, that appears white.

“When we’re born we don’t have a whole lot of myelin, but as we learn and grow myelin develops and is a really important part of early brain development,” Dean says. “Basically, there was this association [in our study] that mom’s with higher depression and anxiety symptoms had infants at one month of age with lower white matter infrastructure.”

The researchers surveyed 101 pregnant moms in their third trimester to determine their levels of depression and anxiety symptoms. They then used brain scans to measure their babies’ white matter levels a month after birth.

What researchers don’t yet know is whether or not this phenomenon persists after that one month mark.

“We don;t know if those kind of relationships hold throughout childhood. It might be that these infants might catch up later on and have white matter that doesn’t look different to those same kids that have moms with less anxiety or depression levels.”

Dean says the same babies that were scanned at one month are now receiving scans again at 24 months. He says the next step in their research is to try to determine if the now-toddlers still have differences in their white matter related to their moms’ mental health during pregnancy.

He hopes to look into other factors that weren’t accounted for in this study, like genetic variables that could contribute to both parental mental health and infants’ brain development.

Dean says one of the larger goals of this study is to help improve and develop mental health interventions for pregnant moms — and maybe also improve the health of their babies.

“Pregnancy is a stressful time in general, a lot of moms experience depressive and anxiety symptoms,” Dean says. “It kind of opens the question of whether or not there might be certain interventions or things that mothers could try to do to improve their mental health during pregnancy that could possibly have a positive impact on the brain development of their infants.”

Dean says those kinds of interventions could look like traditional therapy, or more mindfulness based approaches for parents.