Larger Amygdala Volume Mediates the Association Between Prenatal Maternal Stress and Higher Levels of Externalizing Behaviors: Sex Specific Effects in Project Ice Storm

Front Hum Neurosci. 2019 May 14;13:144. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00144. eCollection 2019.


Introduction: The amygdala is a brain structure involved in emotional regulation. Studies have shown that larger amygdala volumes are associated with behavioral disorders. Prenatal maternal depression is associated with structural changes in the amygdala, which in turn, is predictive of an increase in behavioral problems. Girls may be particularly vulnerable. However, it is not known whether disaster-related prenatal maternal stress (PNMS), or which aspect of the maternal stress experience (i.e., objective hardship, subjective distress, and cognitive appraisal), influences amygdala volumes. Nor is it known whether amygdala volumes mediate the effect of PNMS on behavioral problems in girls and boys. Aims: To assess whether aspects of PNMS are associated with amygdala volume, to determine whether timing of exposure moderates the effect, and to test whether amygdala volume mediates the association between PNMS and internalizing and externalizing problems in 11½ year old children exposed in utero, to varying levels of disaster-related PNMS. Methods: Bilateral amygdala volumes (AGV) and total brain volume (TBV) were acquired using magnetic resonance imaging, from 35 boys and 33 girls whose mothers were pregnant during the January 1998 Quebec Ice Storm. The mothers' disaster-related stress was assessed in June 1998. Child internalizing and externalizing problems were assessed at 11½ years using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). Hierarchical regression analyses and mediation analyses were conducted on boys and girls separately, controlling for perinatal and postnatal factors. Results: In boys, subjective distress was associated with larger right AGV/TBV when mothers where exposed during late pregnancy, which in turn explained higher levels of externalizing behavior. However, when adjusting for postnatal factors, the effect was no longer significant. In girls, later gestational exposure to the ice storm was associated with larger AGV/TBV, but here, higher levels of objective PNMS were associated with more externalizing problems, which was, in part, mediated by larger AGV/TBV. No effects were detected on internalizing behaviors. Conclusion: These results suggest that the effects of PNMS on amygdala development and externalizing symptoms, as assessed in boys and girls in early adolescence, can be influenced by the timing of the stress in pregnancy, and the particular aspect of the mother's stress experience.

Keywords: adolescence; amygdala; externalizing; internalizing; prenatal maternal stress.