Maternal discrimination may affect baby’s brain development: Study

The amygdala is an area of the brain associated with emotional processing and it's very vulnerable to prenatal stress, said the researchers.

New York: Experiencing discrimination and acculturation during pregnancy may not only affect maternal health, but can also prove detrimental to the brain health of the baby, according to a study

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The study from Yale and Columbia University researchers showed that the painful experiences pregnant women face can affect the brain circuitry of their unborn baby and is different from those caused by general stress and depression.

Previous research has shown that not only are high levels of stress and depression harmful to the person experiencing them, but they can also have long-lasting effects on their children if experienced during pregnancy.

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In recent years, studies have also revealed that discrimination and acculturation — or the changes that occur due to migration and the subsequent balancing of multiple, different cultures — can affect the adult brain. What’s less clear is how children might be affected by their parents’ experiences of discrimination and acculturation.

The new study involved 38 women, whose babies underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate brain connectivity.

The results, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, showed differences in the children whose parents reported experiencing discrimination while pregnant.

The amygdala is an area of the brain associated with emotional processing and it’s very vulnerable to prenatal stress, said the researchers.

Prior research has found that early experiences of adversity can have measurable impacts on amygdala connectivity in infants, children, adolescents, and adults. A growing body of evidence also suggests the amygdala is involved in ethnic and racial processing, such as differentiating faces of people from different races or ethnicities, for example.

When the researchers assessed connectivity between the amygdala and another region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with higher-order functioning, they found that children of people who experienced more discrimination while pregnant had weaker connectivity between the two brain regions.

“Our finding was consistent with what you expect to see in the brains of those affected by early life adversity either pre- or postnatally,” said Dustin Scheinost, associate professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at Yale School of Medicine.

Future research, he said, should focus on whether other populations are affected in similar ways and what underlies the effects.

“We don’t fully know why this happens,” said Scheinost. “So we need to investigate the biological mechanisms that carry these experiences of adversity from parent to offspring.”

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