May 14, 2019
2 min read

Maternal depressive symptoms affect child brain development 10 years later

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Exposure to perinatal maternal depressive symptoms was linked to brain development in the offspring examined at age 10 years, according to data published in American Journal of Psychiatry.

“Little is known ... about the neurobiology underlying the associations between maternal depressive symptoms and cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems in offspring,” Runyu Zou, BMed, MPH, from the department of child and adolescent psychiatry, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and colleagues wrote.

In this population-based study, researchers assessed the relationships between exposure to maternal depressive symptoms at different developmental stages from fetal life to preadolescence (age 10 years) and child brain development using neuroimaging.

Using data from a longitudinal birth cohort in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Zou and colleagues examined 3,469 mother-child pairs, measuring maternal depressive symptoms and child emotional and behavioral problems at the time of neuroimaging (age 10 years). They evaluated the link between maternal depressive symptoms and child brain development over time at each assessment. In the primary analyses, they assessed global volumetric measures in the brain, including total gray matter and total white matter volume, and overall white matter microstructure measures.

The results showed that only exposure to maternal depressive symptoms when the child was aged 2 years was tied to smaller total gray matter volume and lower global fractional anisotropy in offspring at age 10; specifically, a 1-point increase on the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI) depressive symptom scale related to a 0.96% reduction in total gray matter. According to the findings, children exposed to the highest BSI score exhibited up to 3.8% less gray matter.

However, maternal depressive symptoms examined during the prenatal period or in childhood were not linked to smaller total gray matter volumes in children at age 10 years, the results showed.

Trajectory analyses indicated that, when compared with nonexposed children, offspring exposed to persistently high levels of maternal depressive symptoms across the perinatal period exhibited alterations in white matter microstructure and smaller gray and white matter volumes. In addition, these differences in gray matter volume mediated the link between postnatal maternal depressive symptoms and attention problems in the offspring, according to Zou and colleagues.

“We must be careful when interpreting the timing of effects, because depression is a chronic and recurrent disorder. The correlation of maternal depressive symptoms over time makes it difficult to attribute any effect to a particular time point in development,” the researchers wrote. “These findings suggest that the perinatal period, particularly the postnatal period, may be critical for prevention of maternal depressive symptoms in view of the long-term association with child brain development.” – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: Zou reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.