Stress, anxiety during pregnancy can hinder child’s cognitive development, new study finds

The researchers followed 97 pregnant women and their babies and found the changes also increased internalisation and dysregulation behaviour.

mother child stress anxiety
The researchers used validated self-reported questionnaires to quantify prenatal maternal stress, anxiety and depression. (Pixabay)

Increased anxiety, stress, and depression in pregnant women can alter key features of the foetal brain, subsequently causing a decline in cognitive development in offspring at 18 months, a new study has found. The findings of the research, conducted by Washington-based Children’s National Hospital, were published in the JAMA Network journal.

For their study, the researchers followed 97 pregnant women and their babies and found the changes also increased internalisation and dysregulation behaviour. The findings suggest that persistent psychological distress after the baby’s birth could influence infant self-regulation and parent-child interaction.

This is the first such study that sheds light on a link between the long-term cognitive development consequences for foetuses exposed to high toxic stress and altered in-utero foetal brain development. The researchers observed changes in the foetus’ sulcal depth and left hippocampal volume, which could explain the neurodevelopment issues after birth.

These children, once they grow into toddlers, may experience persistent social-emotional problems and have trouble establishing positive relationships with everyone, including their mothers.

“Identifying early brain developmental biomarkers may help improve the identification of infants at risk for later neurodevelopmental impairment who might benefit from early targeted interventions,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, senior author of the study and director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National.

About one in four pregnant women, regardless of their socioeconomic status, suffers from stress-related symptoms, the most common pregnancy complication. The relationship among prenatal maternal psychological distress, altered foetal brain development, and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes, however, remain unknown.

Studying in utero foetal brain development is a challenge due to foetal and maternal movements, signal-to-noise ratio issues, imaging technology, and changes in brain growth.

The researchers used validated self-reported questionnaires to quantify prenatal maternal stress, anxiety and depression. All pregnant participants of the study were healthy, most had some education, and were employed.

The researchers measured foetal brain volumes and cortical folding from three-dimensional reconstructed images from MRI scans. They quantified foetal brain creatine and choline using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. The neurodevelopment of the 18-month-old child was measured using validated scales and assessments.

The research builds upon previous studies by the Developing Brain Institute led by Dr Limperopoulos. The previous study discovered that anxiety in pregnant women appeared to affect their baby’s brain development.

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