Maternal prenatal depression predicts infant negative affect via maternal inflammatory cytokine levels

Brain Behav Immun. 2018 Oct:73:470-481. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2018.06.011. Epub 2018 Jun 18.


Maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy are associated with risk for offspring emotional and behavioral problems, but the mechanisms by which this association occurs are not known. Infant elevated negative affect (increased crying, irritability, fearfulness, etc.) is a key risk factor for future psychopathology, so understanding its determinants has prevention and early intervention potential. An understudied yet promising hypothesis is that maternal mood affects infant mood via maternal prenatal inflammatory mechanisms, but this has not been prospectively examined in humans. Using data from a pilot study of women followed from the second trimester of pregnancy through six months postpartum (N = 68) our goal was to initiate a prospective study as to whether maternal inflammatory cytokines mediate the association between maternal depressive symptoms and infant offspring negative affect. The study sample was designed to examine a broad range of likely self-regulation and mood-regulation problems in offspring; to that end we over-selected women with a family history or their own history of elevated symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Results supported the hypothesis: maternal pro-inflammatory cytokines during the third trimester (indexed using a latent variable that included plasma interleukin-6, tumor necrosis factor-alpha and monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 concentrations as indicators) mediated the effect, such that higher maternal depressive symptoms were associated with higher maternal inflammation, and this mediated the effect on maternal report of infant negative affect (controlling for maternal affect during the infant period). This is the first human study to demonstrate that maternal inflammatory cytokines mediate the association between prenatal depression and infant outcomes, and the first to demonstrate a biological mechanism through which depressive symptoms impact infant temperament.

Keywords: Cytokines; Infant temperament; Inflammation; Negative affect; Prenatal depression.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology
  • Affective Symptoms / physiopathology*
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Depression / physiopathology*
  • Depression / psychology
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Forecasting / methods
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Middle Aged
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Postpartum Period
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / psychology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / metabolism
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / pathology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Temperament / physiology


  • Cytokines