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Effects of Depression During Pregnancy

December 14, 2010

(Ivanhoe Newswire) ““ The cocktail of hormones running through a depressed mother’s body may play a major role in the development of their baby’s brain, according to this University of Michigan led study.

A higher level of depression in mothers during pregnancy was associated with higher levels of stress hormones in their children at birth, along with other neurological and behavioral differences.

“The two possibilities are that they are either more sensitive to stress and respond more vigorously to it, or that they are less able to shut down their stress response,” the study’s lead investigator, Delia M. Vazquez, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, was quoted as saying.

The study looked at links between maternal depression and the development of the infants’ neuroendocrine system, which controls the body’s stress response, moods, and emotions.

When the babies were only two weeks old researchers found that the children of depressed mothers had lower muscle tone compared to those born to mothers who weren’t depressed, but they adjusted more quickly to stimuli like a bell, rattle, or light- a sign of neurological maturity.

“It’s difficult to say to what extent these differences are good or bad, or what impact they might have over a longer time frame,” the study’s lead author, Sheila Marcus, M.D., clinical director of U-M’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Section was quoted as saying.

“We’re just beginning to look at these differences as part of a whole collection of data points that could be risk markers,” Marcus explained. “These in turn would identify women who need attention during pregnancy or mother/infant pairs who might benefit from postpartum programs known to support healthy infant development through mom/baby relationships.”

Along with tracking the mothers’ depressive symptoms throughout gestation, researchers took samples of umbilical cord blood right after birth. They found elevated levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in babies born to mothers with depression. ACTH tells the adrenal gland to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol levels, however, were similar in children of mothers with varying levels of depression, likely an indication of the high level of stress associated with the birth itself, the researchers note.

The bigger question is the degree to which the hormonal environment of the uterus acts as a catalyst for processes that alter infant gene expression, neuroendocrine development, and brain circuitry. These could set the stage for increased risk for later behavioral and psychological disorders.
 
The researchers recommended that mothers experiencing symptoms of depression during pregnancy talk to a therapist. They also noted that interventions aimed and mother-child bonding after birth can act as countermeasures, stimulating children’s neurological development and lowering the possible effects of stress hormone production early in life.

Post-partum depression is one of the most common complications of pregnancy and up to 1 in 5 women may experience symptoms of depression during pregnancy.
The impact of mothers’ depression on fetuses and newborns has generated a considerable amount of research in recent years. Previous studies have shown that babies born to women with severe depression may be more likely to be born prematurely or underweight, have diminished hand-to-mouth coordination and be less cuddly.

SOURCE: Infant Behavior and Development, published online December 13, 2010




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