Prepartum and Postpartum Maternal Depressive Symptoms Are Related to Children's Brain Structure in Preschool

Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Dec 1;80(11):859-868. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.12.004. Epub 2015 Dec 15.


Background: Perinatal maternal depression is a serious health concern with potential lasting negative consequences for children. Prenatal depression is associated with altered brain gray matter in children, though relations between postpartum depression and children's brains and the role of white matter are unclear.

Methods: We studied 52 women who provided Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) scores during each trimester of pregnancy and at 3 months postpartum and their children who underwent magnetic resonance imaging at age 2.6 to 5.1 years. Associations between maternal depressive symptoms and magnetic resonance imaging measures of cortical thickness and white matter structure in the children were investigated.

Results: Women's second trimester EPDS scores negatively correlated with children's cortical thickness in right inferior frontal and middle temporal regions and with radial and mean diffusivity in white matter emanating from the inferior frontal area. Cortical thickness, but not diffusivity, correlations survived correction for postpartum EPDS. Postpartum EPDS scores negatively correlated with children's right superior frontal cortical thickness and with diffusivity in white matter originating from that region, even after correcting for prenatal EPDS.

Conclusions: Higher maternal depressive symptoms prenatally and postpartum are associated with altered gray matter structure in children; the observed white matter correlations appear to be uniquely related to the postpartum period. The reduced thickness and diffusivity suggest premature brain development in children exposed to higher maternal perinatal depressive symptoms. These results highlight the importance of ensuring optimal women's mental health throughout the perinatal period, because maternal depressive symptoms appear to increase children's vulnerability to nonoptimal brain development.

Keywords: Brain development; Diffusion imaging; Magnetic resonance imaging; Maternal depression; Postpartum; Pregnancy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Depression, Postpartum / complications*
  • Depressive Disorder / complications*
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / diagnostic imaging*
  • White Matter / diagnostic imaging*