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Low parental socioeconomic status alters brain development in unborn babies

doctor examining pregnant woman

A first-of-its-kind study with 144 pregnant women finds that socioeconomic status (SES) has an impact in the womb, altering several key regions in the developing fetal brain as well as cortical features.

Maternal socioeconomic status impacts babies even before birth, emphasizing the need for policy interventions to support the wellbeing of pregnant women, according to newly published research from Children’s National Hospital.

A first-of-its-kind study with 144 pregnant women finds that socioeconomic status (SES) has an impact in the womb, altering several key regions in the developing fetal brain as well as cortical features. Parental occupation and education levels encompassing populations with lower SES hinder early brain development, potentially affecting neural, social-emotional and cognitive function later in the infant’s life.

Having a clear understanding of early brain development can also help policymakers identify intervention approaches such as educational assistance and occupational training to support and optimize the well-being of people with low SES since they face multiple psychological and physical stressors that can influence childhood brain development, Lu et al. note in the study published in JAMA Network Open.

“While there has been extensive research about the interplay between socioeconomic status and brain development, until now little has been known about the exact time when brain development is altered in people at high-risk for poor developmental outcomes,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Institute and senior author. “There are many reasons why these children can be vulnerable, including high rates of maternal prenatal depression and anxiety. Later in life, these children may experience conduct disorders and impaired neurocognitive functions needed to acquire knowledge, which is the base to thrive in school, work or life.”

The findings suggest that fetuses carried by women with low socioeconomic backgrounds had decreased regional brain growth and accelerated brain gyrification and surface folding patterns on the brain. This observation in lower SES populations may in part be explained by elevated parental stress and may be associated with neuropsychiatric disorders and mental illness later in life.

In contrast, fetuses carried by women with higher education levels, occupation and SES scores showed an increased white matter, cerebellar and brainstem volume during the prenatal period, and lower gyrification index and sulcal depth in the parietal, temporal and occipital lobes of the brain. These critical prenatal brain growth and development processes lay the foundation for normal brain function, which ready the infant for life outside the womb, enabling them to attain key developmental milestones after birth, including walking, talking, learning and social skills.

There is also a knowledge gap in the association between socioeconomic status and fetal cortical folding — when the brain undergoes structural changes to create sulcal and gyral regions. The study’s findings of accelerated gyrification in low SES adds to the scientific record, helping inform future research, Limperopoulos added.

The Children’s National research team gathered data from 144 healthy women at 24 to 40 weeks gestation with uncomplicated pregnancies. To establish the parameters for socioeconomic status, which included occupation and education in lieu of family income, parents completed a questionnaire at the time of each brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) visit. The researchers used MRI to measure fetal brain volumes, including cortical gray matter, white matter, deep gray matter, cerebellum and brain stem. Out of the 144 participants, the scientists scanned 40 brain fetuses twice during the pregnancy, and the rest were scanned once. The 3-dimensional computational brain models among healthy fetuses helped determine fetal brain cortical folding.

Potential proximal risk factors like maternal distress were also measured in the study using a questionnaire accounting for 60% of the participants but, according to the limited data available, there was no significant association with low and high socioeconomic status nor brain volume and cortical features.

Authors in the study from Children’s National include: Yuan-Chiao Lu, Ph.D., Kushal Kapse, M.S., Nicole Andersen, B.A., Jessica Quistorff, M.P.H., Catherine Lopez, M.S., Andrea Fry, B.S., Jenhao Cheng, Ph.D., Nickie Andescavage, M.D., Yao Wu, Ph.D., Kristina Espinosa, Psy.D., Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Adre du Plessis, M.D., and Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D.

Associations Between Resting State Functional Connectivity and Behavior in the Fetal Brain

Maternal anxiety affects the fetal brain

Associations Between Resting State Functional Connectivity and Behavior in the Fetal Brain

Anxiety in gestating mothers appears to affect the course of brain development in their fetuses, changing neural connectivity in the womb, a new study suggests.

Anxiety in gestating mothers appears to affect the course of brain development in their fetuses, changing neural connectivity in the womb, a new study by Children’s National Hospital researchers suggests. The findings, published Dec. 7, 2020, in JAMA Network Open, could help explain longstanding links between maternal anxiety and neurodevelopmental disorders in their children and suggests an urgent need for interventions to diagnose and decrease maternal stress.

Researchers have shown that stress, anxiety or depression in pregnant mothers is associated not only with poor obstetric outcomes but also social, emotional and behavioral problems in their children. Although the care environment after birth complicates the search for causes, postnatal imaging showing significant differences in brain anatomy has suggested that these problems may originate during gestation. However, direct evidence for this phenomenon has been lacking, says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National.

To help determine where these neurological changes might get their start, Dr. Limperopoulos, along with staff scientist Josepheen De Asis-Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., and their Children’s National colleagues used a technique called resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) to probe developing neural circuitry in fetuses at different stages of development in the late second and third trimester.

The researchers recruited 50 healthy pregnant volunteers from low-risk prenatal clinics in the Washington, D.C. area who were serving as healthy “control” volunteers in a larger study on fetal brain development in complex congenital heart disease. These study participants, spanning between 24 and 39 weeks in their pregnancies, each filled out widely used and validated questionnaires to screen for stress, anxiety and depression. Then, each underwent brain scans of their fetuses that showed connections between discrete areas that form circuits.

After analyzing rs-fMRI results for their fetuses, the researchers found that those with higher scores for either form of anxiety were more likely to carry fetuses with stronger connections between the brainstem and sensorimotor areas, areas important for arousal and sensorimotor skills, than with lower anxiety scores. At the same time, fetuses of pregnant women with higher anxiety were more likely to have weaker connections between the parieto-frontal and occipital association cortices, areas involved in executive and higher cognitive functions.

“These findings are pretty much in keeping with previous studies that show disturbances in connections reported in the years and decades after birth of children born to women with anxiety,” says Dr. De Asis-Cruz. “That suggests a form of altered fetal programming, where brain networks are changed by this elevated anxiety even before babies are born.”

Whether these effects during gestation themselves linger or are influenced by postnatal care is still unclear, adds Dr. Limperopoulos. Further studies will be necessary to follow children with these fetal differences in neural connectivity to determine whether these variations in neural circuitry development can predict future problems. In addition, it’s unknown whether easing maternal stress and anxiety can avoid or reverse these brain differences. Dr. Limperopoulos and her colleagues are currently studying whether interventions that reduce stress could alter the trajectory of fetal neural development.

In the meantime, she says, these findings emphasize the importance of making sure pregnant women have support for mental health issues, which helps ensure current and future health for both mothers and babies.

“Mental health problems remain taboo, especially in the peripartum period where the expectation is that this is a wonderful time in a woman’s life. Many pregnant mothers aren’t getting the support they need,” Dr. Limperopoulos says. “Changes at the systems level will be necessary to chip away at this critical public health problem and make sure that both mothers and babies thrive in the short and long term.”

Other Children’s National researchers who contributed to this study include Dhineshvikram Krishnamurthy, M.S., software engineer; Li Zhao, Ph.D., research faculty; Kushal Kapse, M.S., staff engineer; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., neuroradiologist; Nickie Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Jessica Quistorff, M.P.H., clinical research program lead; and Catherine Lopez, M.S., clinical research program coordinator.

This study was funded by R01 HL116585-01 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and U54HD090257 from the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Novel approach to detect fetal growth restriction

doctor checking pregnant woman's belly

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging can point out subtle architectural deviations associated with fetal growth restriction during the second half of pregnancy, a first-time finding that has the promise to lead to earlier intervention.

Morphometric and textural analyses of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can point out subtle architectural deviations that are associated with fetal growth restriction (FGR) during the second half of pregnancy. The first-time finding hints at the potential to spot otherwise hidden placental woes earlier and intervene in a more timely fashion, a research team led by Children’s National Hospital faculty reports in Pediatric Research.

“We found reduced placental size, as expected, but also determined that the textural metrics are accelerated in FGR when factoring in gestational age, suggesting premature placental aging in FGR,” says Nickie Andescavage, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s National and the study’s lead author. “While morphometric and textural features can discriminate placental differences between FGR cases with and without Doppler abnormalities, the pattern of affected features differs between these sub-groups. Of note, placental insufficiency with abnormal Doppler findings have significant differences in the signal-intensity metrics, perhaps related to differences of water content within the placenta.”

The placenta, an organ shared by the pregnant woman and the developing fetus, delivers oxygen and nutrients to the developing fetus and ferries away waste products. Placental insufficiency is characterized by a placenta that develops poorly or is damaged, impairing blood flow, and can result in still birth or death shortly after birth. Surviving infants may be born preterm or suffer early brain injury; later in life, they may experience cardiovascular, metabolic or neuropsychiatric problems.

Because there are no available tools to help clinicians identify small but critical changes in placental architecture during pregnancy, placental insufficiency often is found after some damage is already done. Typically, it is discovered when FGR is diagnosed, when a fetus weighs less than 9 of 10 fetuses of the same gestational age.

“There is a growing appreciation for the prenatal origin of some neuropsychiatric disorders that manifest years to decades later. Those nine months of gestation very much define the breath of who we later become as adults,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s senior author. “By identifying better biomarkers of fetal distress at an earlier stage in pregnancy and refining our imaging toolkit to detect them, we set the stage to be able to intervene earlier and improve children’s overall outcomes.”

The research team studied 32 healthy pregnancies and compared them with 34 pregnancies complicated by FGR. These women underwent up to two MRIs between 20 weeks to 40 weeks gestation. They also had abdominal circumference, fetal head circumference and fetal femur length measured as well as fetal weight estimated.

In pregnancies complicated by FGR, placentas were smaller, thinner and shorter than uncomplicated pregnancies and had decreased placental volume. Ten of 13 textural and morphometric features that differed between the two groups were associated with absolute birth weight.

“Interestingly, when FGR is diagnosed in the second trimester, placental volume, elongation and thickness are significantly reduced compared with healthy pregnancies, whereas the late-onset of FGR only affects placental volume,” Limperopoulos adds. “We believe with early-onset FGR there is a more significant reduction in the developing placental units that is detected by gross measures of size and shape. By the third trimester, the overall shape of the placenta seems to have been well defined so that primarily volume is affected in late-onset FGR.”

In addition to Dr. Andescavage and Limperopoulos, study co-authors include Sonia Dahdouh, Sayali Yewale, Dorothy Bulas, M.D., chief of the Division of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, and Biostatistician, Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., MPH, all of Children’s National; Sara Iqbal, of MedStar Washington Hospital Center; and Ahmet Baschat, of Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under award number 1U54HD090257, R01-HL116585, UL1TR000075 and KL2TR000076, and the Clinical-Translational Science Institute-Children’s National.