Stress during pregnancy could affect brain development of premature babies, according to new research.
Scientists from King’s College London have found a link between prenatal stress in mothers and impaired development in the part of the brain associated with mental health disorders in preterm babies.
The team say their findings, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, highlight the need to provide support for expectant mothers.
Alexandra Lautarescu, a PhD researcher at King’s College London and lead author of the study, said: “Antenatal services need to be aware that it is important to think about stress of the mums and we need to have some kind of support there for the mums who identify that they are stressed.
“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.”
The researchers examined 251 premature babies and their mothers.
The mothers’ stress levels were assessed using a questionnaire asking them about events that may cause severe mental strain such as bereavement, separation or divorce as well as everyday stressful situations such as moving house or taking an exam.
A severity score was given based on the number and the type of stressful events the mothers experienced.
A type of scan known as diffusion tensor imaging was used to look at the structure of the white matter tract – a bundle of nerves that connects the frontal lobe and the temporal lobe of the brain – in babies.
Ms Lautarescu said: “We found that in the mums that were more stressed during pregnancy and the period before birth, white matter was altered in the babies.”
Abnormalities in the white matter tract, also known as the uncinate fasciculus, have previously been implicated in anxiety and other mental health disorders.
The researchers wrote in their paper: “Abnormal microstructural organisation of this tract in children and adults has been associated with a range of outcomes including antisocial behaviour, autism spectrum conditions, anxiety, mood disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
The researchers say that GPs and health care providers can often fail to pick up on women dealing with stressful events during their pregnancy.
Ms Lautarescu added: “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.
“No one is asking these women about stress and hence they don’t receive any support.”
The team say further studies are needed to understand whether the changes in the brain development of these babies will lead to adverse outcomes later in life.
The researchers wrote in their paper: “In conclusion, we provide what we believe is the first evidence that prenatal stress exposure is associated with altered development of the uncinate fasciculus in premature neonates.
“These findings add to a growing set of studies implicating maternal prenatal stress in early brain development.”