Mothers’ mental health linked to brain development in babies

New findings from a recently published UW-Madison study suggest a connection between mothers’ mental health and brain development in their babies after birth.

Doug Dean is a postdoctoral fellow at the university who led the study team. They found children whose mothers had more anxiety and depression symptoms displayed indicators for poor white matter development in their brains.

White matter connects various regions of the brain and is crucial for information processing within the central nervous system. It’s white due to the presence of myelin, a fatty coating around nerve fibers which allows for quick signal transfer.

“These pathways are important to healthy brain development and are known to influence mental health outcomes later in life,” Dean said.

Researchers asked around 100 expectant mothers questions on their mental health at two points in their third trimester, at 28 weeks and 35 into pregnancy. Study participants did not have a current diagnosed mental health disorder, but many experienced normal levels of depression and anxiety.

One month after birth, researchers used imaging tools to scan babies’ brains as they were sleeping.

On top of their findings linking white matter development to mothers’ mental health, researchers found the developmental effects were different for male and female infants. That could be linked to boys’ white matter developing slower, according to Dean.

The study on the infant findings was published earlier this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, but that’s not the end of the story. Those same children have more recently been scanned at 2 years old by researchers, who have plans to track ongoing development.

If more funding comes through, future research could be performed on these kids for even longer. Previous funding has come from the National Institutes of Health.

“For instance, we want to know: Do these results hold a few years down the line? Do they affect long-term development? Do kids who have less developed white matter catch up at some point?” Dean said. “We hope to get a better sense of how prenatal experiences affect longer-term outcomes, but there’s a lot we just don’t know yet.”

See more on the study here: