When a baby is in the womb, it's in almost constant development. From growing in size, to sprouting limbs and beginning to move, it's a busy time. Brain development is going at a breakneck pace as well.
Once a baby is born, he or she has to know how to recognize mom, root for food and cry when something is wrong. New research conducted at Wayne State University shows that stress during pregnancy will impact the brain of the fetus in a significant way. The brain is all about connectivity. Neurons have to transmit signals 24/7 so gaps in connectivity can cause a host of issues in a baby.
Moriah Thomason of Wayne State University presented the work recently at the 25th meeting for the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in Boston, MA. She stated, "It has long been thought that the stress of a mother during her pregnancy may imprint on the brain of her developing child. 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."
Until recent imaging technology became more advanced, it was difficult to research with children prenatally, but now functional MRI scans (fMRI) can be done while a baby is still in utero. The fMRI scan is a perfect tool for this kind of research since it can document connectivity in the brain rather than just structural components of brain tissue.
Scans were carried out on 47 fetuses. Mothers for the study were recruited in areas that have low resources and are also located in high-stress urban regions. Many of the study moms reported having issues with moderate to severe depression, anxiety, and stress. The scans were done between 30 and 37 weeks of gestation.
The scans and the information on the mothers matched significantly. Mothers who reported the highest levels of stress also had the lowest amount of connectivity in the brains of their babies. It's the first study that has been able to directly connect stress during pregnancy with actual prenatal fetal development changes.
So where in the brain were these changes seen? The cerebellum was the region of the brain that seemed most lacking in connectivity. This part of the brain contains the highest concentration of glucocorticoid receptors. These receptors are part of the complex mechanism of stress, and the team hopes to look further at this area in future research. Thomason explained that the scans were also able to show that the brain develops its network first, and then begins to develop motor and cognitive skills. Connectivity is the only way the brain can work efficiently.
While it was a complicated process to coordinate scheduling expectant mothers and to get scans when the babies were not busy kicking up a storm, the work is important because it shows that the fetal environment before birth is very much affected by the outside environment of the mother. The video below has more information.