Biological Psychiatry, Available online 15 December 2015
Feelings of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, and irritability are common among pregnant women, and are often associated with depression. Almost one in five women will experience bouts of depression sometime during their pregnancy or shortly after the birth of their child. Research has shown that children whose mothers experienced depression during or after pregnancy are more likely to develop mental health problems, struggle in school and/or have difficulties relating to others compared to children whose mothers were not depressed. However, it is still unclear how or why a mother’s depression surrounding pregnancy affects her children. The goal of this study was to look at how mother’s depression symptoms during or after pregnancy affected their young child’s brain.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers studied the brains of fifty-two children 2-5 years old. Children’s brain structure was then compared to their mother’s depression symptoms during and shortly after pregnancy.
The results from this research study showed that maternal depression symptoms are related to their children’s brain structure in areas that control attention and inhibition. Specifically, higher depression symptoms either in the middle of pregnancy (2nd trimester) or shortly after birth (~3 months postpartum) were related to more mature brain structure in these areas. While brain plasticity is life-long, adaptability is greatest during early childhood. The results of this research may indicate that children whose mothers had more depression symptoms have a shorter window of optimal brain plasticity during which they are most able to learn and adapt to their environment.
Though further investigation is needed, the results from this study uncover links between maternal mental health and children’s brain structure. Clearly, investing in mother’s mental health during and after pregnancy is critical as it may have long-term positive impacts on their children.