Topic: Prenatal maternal distress during COVID linked to alterations in infant brain development
Having a child is both an exciting as well as stressful time in life. However, with the onset of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, women have struggled with difficulties in accessing care and, as a result, the inability to have in-person talks with their healthcare providers.
Pregnant women, in particular, often fear contracting the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and being alone due to social distancing regulations during their visits to the hospital, especially in the intrapartum period.
A new study published on the preprint server medRxiv* discusses the effects of stress during pregnancy in the pandemic on the developing brain of the infant. The results of the current study indicate the need for urgent policy changes to better care for pregnant women, thus improving both their mental health and the formation of fetal neural connections.
The effects of the pandemic have been wide-ranging, from hospitalizations with severe illness or death, to closures of a wide range of public institutions from schools and playgrounds to businesses. Travel restrictions and limits on social interactions have also significantly impacted the economy.
Among the many consequences of the current pandemic is prenatal distress, which the researchers define as “elevated symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.” Prenatal distress is associated with undesirable effects on both the pregnant woman and the developing fetus, such as preterm birth, as well as increased risks of behavioral and mental health problems in the offspring.
These effects are likely to arise from aberrant development within the limbic system, which leads to the altered formation of behavior patterns. It is especially true that this affects the structure of brain nuclei like the amygdala, white matter, and connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal regions.
The white matter is composed of neuronal fibers that allow for the billions of cross-connections that underlie the brain’s enormous and complex activity. The pathways between the amygdala and prefrontal regions are responsible for the child’s behavioral response to maternal stress, such as hyperactivity and aggression.
Thus, the disruption of brain structure mediates the abnormal development of child behavior when born to mothers with prenatal distress.
A striking aspect of the pandemic, with regard to pregnant mothers, has been the loss of healthcare and social support for expectant and new mothers. The rates of mental distress during pregnancy have increased by a factor of more than three since the pandemic began. This is a concern, given the findings of earlier studies that demonstrate how prenatal distress affects brain development and behavior over the long term.
Topic Discussed: Prenatal maternal distress during COVID linked to alterations in infant brain development