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Catherine Limperopoulos

Stressful pregnancies can leave fingerprint on fetal brain

Catherine Limperopoulos

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author.

When a diagnosis of fetal congenital heart disease causes pregnant moms to test positive for stress, anxiety and depression, powerful imaging can detect impaired development in key fetal brain regions, according to Children’s National Hospital research published online Jan. 13, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

While additional research is needed, the Children’s National study authors say their unprecedented findings underscore the need for universal screening for psychological distress as a routine part of prenatal care and taking other steps to support stressed-out pregnant women and safeguard their newborns’ developing brains.

“We were alarmed by the high percentage of pregnant women with a diagnosis of a major fetal heart problem who tested positive for stress, anxiety and depression,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Developing Brain at Children’s National and the study’s corresponding author. “Equally concerning is how prevalent psychological distress is among pregnant women generally. We report for the first time that this challenging prenatal environment impairs regions of the fetal brain that play a major role in learning, memory, coordination, and social and behavioral development, making it all the more important for us to identify these women early during pregnancy to intervene,” Limperopoulos adds.

Congenital heart disease (CHD), structural problems with the heart, is the most common birth defect. Still, it remains unclear how exposure to maternal stress impacts brain development in fetuses with CHD.

The multidisciplinary study team enrolled 48 women whose unborn fetuses had been diagnosed with CHD and 92 healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies. Using validated screening tools, they found:

  • 65% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for stress
  • 27% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for stress
  • 44% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for anxiety
  • 26% of women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for anxiety
  • 29% of pregnant women expecting a baby with CHD tested positive for depression and
  • 9% women with uncomplicated pregnancies tested positive for depression

All told, they performed 223 fetal magnetic resonance imaging sessions for these 140 fetuses between 21 and 40 weeks of gestation. They measured brain volume in cubic centimeters for the total brain as well as volumetric measurements for key regions such as the cerebrum, cerebellum, brainstem, and left and right hippocampus.

Maternal stress and anxiety in the second trimester were associated with smaller left hippocampi and smaller cerebellums only in pregnancies affected by fetal CHD. What’s more, specific regions — the hippocampus head and body and the left cerebellar lobe – were more susceptible to stunted growth. The hippocampus is key to memory and learning, while the cerebellum controls motor coordination and plays a role in social and behavioral development.

The hippocampus is a brain structure that is known to be very sensitive to stress. The timing of the CHD diagnosis may have occurred at a particularly vulnerable time for the developing fetal cerebellum, which grows faster than any other brain structure in the second half of gestation, particularly in the third trimester.

“None of these women had been screened for prenatal depression or anxiety. None of them were taking medications. And none of them had received mental health interventions. In the group of women contending with fetal CHD, 81% had attended college and 75% had professional educations, so this does not appear to be an issue of insufficient resources,” Limperopoulos adds. “It’s critical that we routinely to do these screenings and provide pregnant women with access to interventions to lower their stress levels. Working with our community partners, Children’s National is doing just that to help reduce toxic prenatal stress for both the health of the mother and for the future newborns. We hope this becomes standard practice elsewhere.”

Adds Yao Wu, Ph.D., a research associate working with Limperopoulos at Children’s National and the study’s lead author: “Our next goal is exploring effective prenatal cognitive behavioral interventions to reduce psychological distress felt by pregnant women and improve neurodevelopment in babies with CHD.”

In addition to Limperopoulos and Wu , Children’s National study co-authors include Kushal Kapse, MS, staff engineer; Marni Jacobs, Ph.D., biostatistician; Nickie Niforatos-Andescavage, M.D., neonatologist; Mary T. Donofrio, M.D., director, Fetal Heart Program; Anita Krishnan, M.D., associate director, echocardiography; Gilbert Vezina, M.D., director, Neuroradiology Program; David Wessel, M.D., Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer; and Adré  J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., director, Fetal Medicine Institute. Jessica Lynn Quistorff, MPH, Catherine Lopez, MS, and Kathryn Lee Bannantine, BSN, assisted with subject recruitment and study coordination.

Financial support for the research described in this post was provided by the National Institutes of Health under grant No. R01 HL116585-01 and the Thrasher Research Fund under Early Career award No. 14764.

allopregnanolone molecule

Autism spectrum disorder risk linked to insufficient placental steroid

allopregnanolone molecule

A study led by Children’s National Hospital and presented during Neuroscience 2019 finds that loss of allopregnanolone, a key hormone supplied by the placenta, leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region essential for smooth motor coordination, balance and social cognition – and increases the risk of developing autism.

An experimental model study suggests that allopregnanolone, one of many hormones produced by the placenta during pregnancy, is so essential to normal fetal brain development that when provision of that hormone decreases – as occurs with premature birth – offspring are more likely to develop autism-like behaviors, a Children’s National Hospital research team reports at the Neuroscience 2019 annual meeting.

“To our knowledge, no other research team has studied how placental allopregnanolone (ALLO) contributes to brain development and long-term behaviors,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D., lead author. “Our study finds that targeted loss of ALLO in the womb leads to long-term structural alterations of the cerebellum – a brain region that is essential for motor coordination, balance and social cognition ­– and increases the risk of developing autism,” Vacher says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 10 infants is born preterm, before 37 weeks gestation; and 1 in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder.

In addition to presenting the abstract, on Monday, Oct. 21, Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., the abstract’s senior author, will discuss the research with reporters during a Neuroscience 2019 news conference. This Children’s National abstract is among 14,000 abstracts submitted for the meeting, the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

ALLO production by the placenta rises in the second trimester of pregnancy, and levels of the neurosteroid peak as fetuses approach full term.

To investigate what happens when ALLO supplies are disrupted, a research team led by Children’s National created a novel transgenic preclinical model in which they deleted a gene essential in ALLO synthesis. When production of ALLO in the placentas of these experimental models declines, offspring had permanent neurodevelopmental changes in a sex- and region-specific manner.

“From a structural perspective, the most pronounced cerebellar abnormalities appeared in the cerebellum’s white matter,” Vacher adds. “We found increased thickness of the myelin, a lipid-rich insulating layer that protects nerve fibers. From a behavioral perspective, male offspring whose ALLO supply was abruptly reduced exhibited increased repetitive behavior and sociability deficits – two hallmarks in humans of autism spectrum disorder.”

On a positive note, providing a single ALLO injection during pregnancy was enough to avert both the cerebellar abnormalities and the aberrant social behaviors.

The research team is now launching a new area of research focus they call “neuroplacentology” to better understand the role of placenta function on fetal and newborn brain development.

“Our team’s data provide exciting new evidence that underscores the importance of placental hormones on shaping and programming the developing fetal brain,” Vacher notes.

  • Neuroscience 2019 presentation
    Sunday, Oct. 20, 9:30 a.m. (CDT)
    “Preterm ASD risk linked to cerebellar white matter changes”
    Claire-Marie Vacher, lead author; Sonia Sebaoui, co-author; Helene Lacaille, co-author; Jackie Salzbank, co-author; Jiaqi O’Reilly, co-author; Diana Bakalar, co-author; Panagiotis Kratimenos, M.D., neonatologist and co-author; and Anna Penn, M.D., clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist and senior author.