Prenatal maternal depression associates with microstructure of right amygdala in neonates at birth

Biol Psychiatry. 2013 Dec 1;74(11):837-44. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.06.019. Epub 2013 Aug 19.


Background: Antenatal maternal cortisol levels associate with alterations in the amygdala, a structure associated with emotion regulation, in the offspring. However, because offspring brain and behavior are commonly assessed years after birth, the timing of such maternal influences is unclear. This study aimed to examine the association between antenatal maternal depressive symptomatology and neonatal amygdala volume and microstructure and thus establish evidence for the transgenerational transmission of vulnerability for affective disorders during prenatal development.

Methods: Our study recruited Asian mothers at 10 to 13 weeks pregnancy and assessed maternal depression at 26 weeks gestation using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. Structural magnetic resonance imaging and diffusion tensor imaging were performed with 157 nonsedated, 6- to 14-day-old newborns and then analyzed to extract the volume, fractional anisotropy, and axial diffusivity values of the amygdala.

Results: Adjusting for household income, maternal age, and smoking exposure, postconceptual age at magnetic resonance imaging, and birth weight, we found significantly lower fractional anisotropy (p = .009) and axial diffusivity (p = .028), but not volume (p = .993), in the right amygdala in the infants of mothers with high compared with those with low-normal Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale scores.

Conclusions: The results reveal a significant relation between antenatal maternal depression and the neonatal microstructure of the right amygdala, a brain region closely associated with stress reactivity and vulnerability for mood anxiety disorders. These findings suggest the prenatal transmission of vulnerability for depression from mother to child and that interventions targeting maternal depression should begin early in pregnancy.

Keywords: Affective disorders; amygdala; antenatal depression; diffusion tensor imaging; magnetic resonance imaging; neonatal brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / embryology*
  • Amygdala / pathology*
  • Asian People / ethnology
  • Depression / complications*
  • Depression / pathology
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Magnetic Resonance Angiography
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / pathology*
  • Singapore