Stress during pregnancy can affect how a child's brain develops and possibly lead to emotional problems when they grow up, a new study says.
According to the British Daily Mail citing the scientific journal eLife, British researchers have linked high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in mothers to structural changes in the amygdala, a group of small almond-shaped neurons located on each side of the brain, for newborn babies.
Cortisol hormone and psychological support
When pregnant women experience stress and anxiety, their bodies secrete higher levels of the hormone cortisol, which means that high levels of it are an indicator of increased stress. The results of the study indicate that the hormone cortisol affects intrauterine fetal development and extends its effect on the emotional and social development of childhood.
So the researchers recommend that there be additional psychological support for pregnant women to prevent any structural abnormalities in the amygdala.
"The amygdala is a brain structure that contains highly regulated neurons - working together to process information about social attitudes and emotions in children,"said Professor James Boardman at the University of Edinburgh.
"Our findings are a call to action to discover and support pregnant women who need additional help during pregnancy as this can be an effective way to promote healthy brain development in their babies,"he added.
The results of the study also indicated that pregnant women who feel nervous or stress should seek help from a specialist doctor and with the support and care necessary, you can manage most health problems well during pregnancy.
An objective measure
Researchers used an objective measure, unlike the traditional questionnaires method used in previous studies, which is to monitor maternal cortisol levels to study the link and the effects on a child's brain development.
Researchers collected hair samples from 78 pregnant women to determine their cortisol levels in the last three months, while their babies underwent a series of brain scans using MRI, a non-surgical examination performed during babies ' sleep.
The researchers found that elevated levels of cortisol in the mother's hair clearly reflected structural changes in the children's amygdala as well as differences in brain connections. Structural changes refer not only to the overall size of the amygdala, but also to its cellular structure, also known as neurons. The researchers also observed changes in the strength of the connections of the pathways that connect the amygdala to other brain regions important for processing emotions.
Difference of influence on males and females
Interestingly, exposure to higher levels of cortisol in the womb affects children in different ways depending on their gender.
Boys showed changes in the microstructure of the amygdala, while girls showed changes in the way the area communicates with other neural networks.
The results of the study can serve as an explanation for why children whose mothers experienced high levels of stress during pregnancy are likely to experience emotional problems later in life. However, the researchers noted that they did not perform emotional assessments in children in the framework of that study.
"This research highlights how important it is to support women's mental health during pregnancy to ensure their needs are met and their children get the best start in life," said Sarah Brown of the children's charity The World, which funded the study.