An infant’s brain development may be impaired by stress levels experienced by the mother during pregnancy, says a study conducted by the University of Edinburgh and published in eLife (November). Researchers found that high stress levels in pregnant women — measured by a hormone (cortisol) linked to anxiety and other health problems — are linked to changes in an area (amygdala) of the infant brain associated with emotional development.
For the study, scientists assessed hair samples of 78 pregnant women to determine their cortisol levels. Subsequently, their infants underwent a series of brain scans using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) while they were asleep. “Our findings are a call to action to detect and support pregnant women who need extra help during pregnancy as this could be an effective way of promoting healthy brain development in their babies,” says James Boardman, lead researcher and director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory, University of Edinburgh.