The University of Edinburgh has recently reported that a child’s brain may be shaped by levels of stress experienced by the mother during the period of pregnancy. It may affect the infant’s brain associated with emotional development. Additionally, prenatal exposure to maternal stress is calculated to affect 10-35% of children worldwide which may later result in impaired cognitive development, negative affectivity, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), addiction, depression, and schizophrenia. There is a possibility that a baby’s developing amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions) may get affected by a signal known as cortisol.
To investigate the same, researchers recruited nearly 80 volunteers and their newborn children. MRI scans were used to analyze the structure of the amygdala. Parallelly, the amount of cortisol was also measured in hair samples collected around the time of birth to evaluate stress levels during the final three months of pregnancy. The study reveals that higher levels of cortisol in the womb affected babies in different ways based on their sex. While boys displayed alterations in the fine structure of their amygdala, girls displayed changes in the connection between the brain region and other neural networks.
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David Q Stoye, Manuel Blesa, Gemma Sullivan, Paola Galdi, Gillian J Lamb, Gill S Black, Alan J Quigley, Michael J Thrippleton, Mark E Bastin, Rebecca M Reynolds, James P Boardman. Maternal cortisol is associated with neonatal amygdala microstructure and connectivity in a sexually dimorphic manner. eLife, 2020; 9 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.60729