How mom-to-be's worry over birth defects can harm baby

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A stressful pregnancy may be linked to congenital heart defects.
A stressful pregnancy may be linked to congenital heart defects.

Hearing that your unborn baby has congenital heart disease can be traumatic, but now new research suggests that if you experience stress, anxiety or depression afterward it could affect your baby's brain development.

Congenital heart disease (structural problems with the heart) is the one of the most common birth defects.

Challenging prenatal environment

"We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major foetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression," said study co-author Catherine Limperopoulos. She is director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

"We report for the first time that this challenging prenatal environment impairs regions of the foetal brain that play a major role in learning, memory, coordination and social and behavioural development, making it all the more important for us to identify these women early during pregnancy to intervene," Limperopoulos said in a hospital news release.

"It's critical that we routinely do these screenings and provide pregnant women with access to interventions to lower their stress levels," she concluded.

The study included 48 pregnant women whose foetuses were diagnosed with congenital heart disease, and a control group of 92 pregnant women who had no complications.

Of the women expecting a baby with congenital heart disease, 65% tested positive for stress, 44% tested positive for anxiety, and 29% tested positive for depression. The rates in the control group were 27% for stress, 26% for anxiety and 9% for depression.

Social and behavioural development

MRI brain imaging of the foetuses was conducted between 21 and 40 weeks of gestation.

Among women expecting a baby with congenital heart disease – but not among those in the control group – stress and anxiety in the second trimester were associated with foetuses with a smaller left hippocampus and smaller cerebellum. However, the study did not prove that maternal stress actually caused these brain development differences.

Specific parts of the brain – the hippocampus head and body and the left cerebellar lobe – were more susceptible to stunted growth. The hippocampus is crucial in memory and learning, while the cerebellum controls motor coordination and is also involved in social and behavioural development, according to the researchers.

The study was published online in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Image credit: iStock

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