Stress during pregnancy may affect fetal brain development

Researchers examined MRI scans of babies' brains and found those whose parents reported high stress during pregnancy had larger left hippocampi.

A plastinated fetus is seen during the exhibition "Body Worlds" by Gunther von Hagen in Rome (photo credit: REUTERS)
A plastinated fetus is seen during the exhibition "Body Worlds" by Gunther von Hagen in Rome
(photo credit: REUTERS)

A study published in mid-April found that babies born to women who experience high levels of anxiety, depression and stress during pregnancy show changes in cognitive development at as old as 18 months. 

Is COVID to blame, again? 

The study was published by JAMA Network Open. All pregnant participants were healthy, and most had some level of education and were employed.

Based on MRI scans of babies' brains, those whose mothers reported high levels of stress during pregnancy had larger left hippocampus volumes. 

Recent overall increased levels of stress among pregnant women could have been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which aligns with the findings of a December 2021 study published by JAMA Pediatrics stating that babies born during the first year of the pandemic showed more evidence of developmental delays.

As they grow into toddlerhood, children with larger left hippocampi (or other developmental changes due to natal stress) may experience social-emotional problems and have difficulty establishing relationships with peers and family members, according to the researchers. 

It's been quite the stressful pandemic year (credit: UNSPLASH)It's been quite the stressful pandemic year (credit: UNSPLASH)

Children born to stressed mothers "might benefit from early, targeted interventions" that would provide the children with support and educational systems to assist them, according to Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C.