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Important discovery for moms and babies

Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute study underscores need for early interventions with mothers experiencing prenatal depression

Scientists at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) are attracting international attention for being the first to uncover a link between prenatal depression, weakened brain wiring in children, and children’s aggression, hyperactivity and vulnerability to depression.

Using state-of-the-art 3T MRI technology funded by the community, researchers found that children whose mothers experienced greater depressive symptoms during pregnancy developed weaker white matter, tissue which is responsible for carrying signals between brain regions. Specifically, there was a significant reduction in connectivity between the amygdala, a structure essential for emotional processing, and the frontal cortex, which controls behaviour, communication and personality. Weakened connectivity between these regions is associated with disruptive behaviours and an increased risk of developing depression.

brain_imaging_lebelA 3T MRI scan shows two areas where weaker brain connections were associated with prenatal maternal depression. (Image courtesy of Dr. Catherine Lebel)

“These results help us understand how depression can have multigenerational impacts, underscoring the need for better screening and support for expectant mothers with even mild depressive symptoms,” says lead scientist, Dr. Catherine Lebel. “Most of the women in our study were not at the point where they met the criteria for clinical depression. They went through ‘sadder than usual’ times typical of many pregnancies.”

About one in five women experiences some form of depression during pregnancy. While prenatal depression has been shown to impact brain development, this study—recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience—pinpoints how and where.

Lebel and her team studied 54 Calgary women and their children, ranging between two and six years old. Mothers answered a survey about their depressive symptoms at several points during their pregnancy. Their children were followed after birth, received MRI scans at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and then had their behaviour assessed within six months.

“We are very grateful to our community. Without their generous investments, we wouldn’t have been able to obtain such clear scans of these little ones and identify this biological link.”

Dr. Catherine Lebel, researcher, ACHRI

In addition to supporting 3TMRI technology and the imaging research team, our community has also funded an MRI simulator designed to look like a fun and colourful rocket ship. The mock scanner is used to help children become familiar with the sounds and feel of an MRI before their tests. This has made it possible for the ACHRI team to become international leaders in scanning very young children including those in this study—without the need for sedatives. As a result, the world is now benefiting from a new and important view of how the brain develops from a very early age.

“We are very grateful to our community. Without their generous investments, we wouldn’t have been able to obtain such clear scans of these little ones and identify this biological link,” says Lebel. “With this new information, we are now examining protective factors that could improve outcomes for both mom and baby.”

Pandemic research underway

Lebel and her research team are also trying to understand how stress and mental health are affecting pregnant women during the COVID-19 pandemic. In another community-supported study, they are examining how factors such as social supports might mitigate stress, and how this may influence pregnancy and birth outcomes.

Anyone interested can sign up for the Pregnancy during the COVID-19 Pandemic Study at the University of Calgary. So far, 7,500 women from across Canada are enrolled. Starting this month, the team will be performing 3T MRI scans on three-month old babies who are part of the study. Too young to need the mock scanner, the tiny participants will be snugly swaddled and scanned while they nap.

“We are committed to this important area of research,” says Lebel. “Now more than ever, with increased stress, anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, we should do more to support mothers and positively impact the long-term health of their children.”

lebel MRI

Dr. Lebel is a member of the University of Calgary’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and Hotchkiss Brain Institute. The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Mach-Gaensslen Foundation, the University of Calgary and the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation.

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