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Prenatal depression may cause mood and anxiety disorders in infants

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Interventions targeting maternal depression should begin early in pregnancy

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Children of depressed parents are at an increased risk of developing depression themselves, a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. However, because offspring brain and behavior are commonly assessed years after birth, the timing of such maternal influences is unclear.

Dr. Anqi Qiu, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering, National University of Singapore along with colleagues examine the association between antenatal maternal depressive symptomatology and neonatal amygdala volume and microstructure and thus establish evidence for the transgenerational transmission of vulnerability for affective disorders during prenatal development.

The researchers recruited 157 Asian mothers at 10 to 13 weeks pregnancy and assessed maternal depression at 26 weeks gestation using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale(a 10-item questionnaire that was developed to identify women who have postpartum depression). Afterward, the newborns aged six to fourteen days old underwent magnetic resonance imaging scans to ascertain the structure of their amygdala and diffusion tensor imaging scans to determine the integrity of the amygdala's pattern of neural connections.

After adjusting for household income, maternal age, and smoking exposure, postconceptual age at magnetic resonance imaging, and birth weight, found significantly lower fractional anisotropy (p = .009) and axial diffusivity (p = .028), but not volume (p = .993), in the right amygdala in the infants of mothers with high compared with those with low-normal Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale scores. That is to say the amygdala's microstructure (e.g., its "wiring") was abnormal in the infants born to depressed mothers.

This finding suggests propensity for abnormal amygdala function, a feature of mood and anxiety disorders, may be transmitted from mother to child during fetal life.

The researchers write “These findings suggest the prenatal transmission of vulnerability for depression from mother to child and that interventions targeting maternal depression should begin early in pregnancy.”

This study provides added evidence supporting the notion that mental health screening should be included among the medical evaluations that women undergo when they discover that they are pregnant. Indeed, the authors conclude that their study supports that "interventions targeting maternal depression should begin early in pregnancy."

Dr. John Krystal, MD, Robert L. McNeil Jr. Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Neurobiology; Chair, Department of Psychiatry; Chief of Psychiatry, Yale-New Haven Hospital, leading expert in the areas of alcoholism, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorders and Editor of Biological Psychiatry commented "Attention to maternal health during pregnancy is an extremely high priority for society for many reasons.” The notion that maternal depression might influence the brain development of their babies is very concerning. The good news is that this risk might be reduced by systematic screening of pregnant women for depression and initiating effective treatment."

This study is published in Biological Psychiatry.

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