Effects of maternal psychological stress during pregnancy on offspring brain development: Considering the role of inflammation and potential for preventive intervention

Published:October 26, 2021DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2021.10.012

      Abstract

      Heightened psychological stress during pregnancy has repeatedly been associated with increased risk for offspring development of behavior problems and psychiatric disorders. This review covers a rapidly growing body of research with the potential to advance a mechanistic understanding of these associations grounded in knowledge about maternal-placental-fetal stress biology and fetal brain development. Specifically, we highlight research employing magnetic resonance imaging to examine the infant brain soon after birth in relation to maternal psychological stress during pregnancy to increase capacity to identify specific alterations in brain structure and function and to differentiate between effects of pre- versus postnatal exposures. We then focus on heightened maternal inflammation during pregnancy as a mechanism through which maternal stress influences the developing fetal brain based on extensive preclinical literature and emerging research in humans. We place these findings in the context of recent work identifying psychotherapeutic interventions found to be effective for reducing psychological stress among pregnant individuals, which also show promise for reducing inflammation. We argue that a focus on inflammation, among other mechanistic pathways, has the potential to lead to a productive and necessary integration of research focused on the effects of maternal psychological stress on offspring brain development and prevention and intervention studies aimed at reducing maternal psychological stress during pregnancy. In addition to increasing capacity for common measurements and understanding potential mechanisms of action relevant to maternal mental health and fetal neurodevelopment, this focus can inform and broaden thinking about prevention and intervention strategies.

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