NEWS Mental Health News Prenatal Depression May Affect Fetal Brain Development, Research Shows By Elizabeth Millard Elizabeth Millard LinkedIn Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. Learn about our editorial process Updated on August 21, 2020 Fact checked Verywell Mind content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication. Learn more. by Andrea Rice Share Tweet Email Print Getty Images Key Takeaways Prenatal depression can potentially alter a child's brain connectivity, and that can impact behavior, a new study suggests.As many as 1 in 5 women experience depression symptoms during pregnancy, making this a common problem. Signs of depression like fatigue and irritability can overlap with pregnancy-related issues, making it more challenging to spot. Depression during pregnancy could change a developing fetus' brain and increase the risk of depression later in life, according to a new study published in August in the Journal of Neuroscience. They found that fetuses of women with greater prenatal depression symptoms had weaker white matter connections between brain regions involved in emotional processing. These conclusions may explain why children of depressed mothers have a higher risk of developing depression themselves, researchers concluded. Neural Connections Researchers conducting the study looked at 54 pregnant women and asked them to answer Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) survey questions pertaining to their depression symptoms during their second and third trimester, and also at three months postpartum. They also employed diffusion MRI, an imaging technique that highlights structural connections between brain regions. An analysis of these MRI results showed that white matter connections were weakened in the brains of pregnant individuals who were experiencing prenatal depression. The next step was to observe the children themselves, which came in the form of dMRI scans taken between the ages of 4 and 5. They then performed behavioral assessments within six months of these brain scans. Researchers found that children whose mothers experienced depression during pregnancy were more likely to exhibit erratic behavior and mood instability. This result was directly linked to weaker white matter connectivity in the amygdala-frontal pathway. White matter is a vast neural system that joins all four lobes of the brain as well as the limbic system, considered the "emotion center" of the brain. Without strong white matter connections, the different parts of the brain have difficulty communicating with each other. Neuroscientists have noted that this connectivity plays a significant role in driving behavior. That's why the recent research may illuminate the reasons behind the prenatal depression and subsequent child behavior association, which has been established in previous research. For example, a 2018 meta-analysis of prenatal depression studies that looked at children's development up to age 18 concluded that in addition to depression, children may also be at higher risk for anxiety and behavioral problems. Parts of the Brain Prenatal Depression is a Common Problem It's estimated that up to 1 in 5 women have some type of pregnancy-related mood or anxiety disorder, and this can be due to a number of risk factors according to Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG, director of perinatal services at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, New York. Those include: History of depression or mood disorderLack of familial or social supportIssues with significant otherFinancial issuesSubstance abuse disordersFamily or domestic violenceChronic stress or illnessAnxious or negative feelings about the pregnancyPregnancy occurring at a young age Physicians address depression with screening questions, appraisals by family members, behavioral monitoring during prenatal visits, and discussions with patients, says Gaither. Any findings that raise an alarm are referred for further evaluation with a psychiatrist, often along with assessment for an underlying medical cause for the issue, such as thyroid dysfunction. Potential Depression Symptoms Going through pregnancy is rife with physical and emotional changes, and sometimes it can be difficult to spot depression. Some women may chalk it up to being part of the transition, especially because pregnancy symptoms like fatigue or irritability overlap with depression signs. "This is a common problem with pregnant women that needs to be recognized by patients, their families, and their doctors, and it's crucial to know symptoms so screening can be done," says Gaither. Kecia Gaither, MD Depression is a common problem with pregnant women that needs to be recognized by patients, their families, and their doctors. It's crucial to know symptoms so screening can be done. — Kecia Gaither, MD Also, there's a prevailing belief that depression is always associated with sadness or feeling despondent, but those aren't always present, according to Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, a social worker with Delphi Behavioral Health Group. In fact, he notes, signs like those are often seen less than other symptoms such as anxiety and fatigue. "Feeling down isn't really all that common for someone with depression as much as other symptoms," Dehorty says. Those can include: Absence of joy or pleasureDisinterest in activities that you used to enjoyHigh levels of anxiety, especially in those with chronic illnessSudden mood shiftsIncreased pain unrelated to normal pregnancy effects like tight musclesDifficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, paired with daytime fatigueLack of motivationLower levels of self-care, including personal hygieneDisinterest in social connections Fortunately, treatment is available, but is highly individualized, says Gaither, which is why it's important to have a conversation with your doctor about what's going on. Just because you're pregnant doesn't mean you can't take antidepressants, but there are a couple options—such as lithium and valproate—which are not recommended during pregnancy, Gaither advises. What This Means for You If you find yourself struggling with emotional and mental health challenges and experiencing signs of anxiety and/or depression talk with your OB/GYN, primary care physician, or other healthcare provider for appropriate referrals.You may be able to do telehealth sessions with a therapist or counselor, even as a new patient. If you're having any thoughts of self-harm or suicide, help is available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255. What Is Perinatal Depression? 14 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Hay RE, Reynolds JE, Grohs MN, et al. Amygdala-prefrontal structural connectivity mediates the relationship between prenatal depression and behaviour in preschool boys. 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Postpartum Mood Disorders and Thyroid Autoimmunity. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2017;8:91. doi:0.3389/fendo.2017.00091 American Pregnancy Association. Depression During Pregnancy. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression Basics. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression in Women: 5 Things You Should Know. National Institute of Mental Health. Chronic Illness & Mental Health. Gayman MD, Brown RL, Cui M. Depressive symptoms and bodily pain: The role of physical disability and social stress. Stress Health. 2011;27(1):52-53. doi:10.1002/smi.1319 Osborne LM. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Antidepressants and Pregnancy: Tips from an Expert. Patorno E, Huybrechts KF, Bateman BT, et al. Lithium Use in Pregnancy and the Risk of Cardiac Malformations. N Engl J Med. 2017;376(23):2245-2254. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1612222 By Elizabeth Millard Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. 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