Researchers at Wayne State University have found evidence to confirm that stress can impact the brain of an unborn child. For the first time ever, experts have shown how brain development is altered in fetuses whose mothers experience high levels of stress and anxiety during pregnancy.
“The major thrill is that we have demonstrated what has long been theorized, but not yet observed in a human, which is that the stress of a mother during her pregnancy is reflected in connectional properties of her child’s developing brain,” said lead author Moriah Thomason.
The study was facilitated by new scanning techniques which enabled the researchers to analyze the brain activity of dozens of fetuses at 30 and 37 weeks gestation.
The scans revealed significant changes in the cerebellum, which is the brain’s stress response region, that emerged almost immediately as the brain began to develop.
“It has long been thought that the stress of a mother during her pregnancy may imprint on the brain of her developing child,” said Thomason.
“Despite the clear importance of this time frame, we presently possess very little understanding of how functional macroscale neural networks build during this precious time in human life, or the relevance of this to future human health and development.”
The pregnant study participants all came from high-stress situations, with many of them reporting high levels of anxiety and depression. Thomason explained that the women were eager to participate in the study to help other women like themselves, and not simply out of concerns about their pregnancy.
Beyond health implications, the results of the study indicate that complex functions in the brain such as stress response develop earlier than what was previously thought.
“We must consider the developing brain in context, thinking about the role of the environment in shaping the brain,” said Thomason. “It is a topic that inspires us to promote healthy brain growth, to ask what it is that we do for children in the lifestyles, opportunities, and learning conditions we create for them.”
The research was presented at the 25th annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.