Altered cortical structure and psychiatric symptom risk in adolescents exposed to maternal stress in utero: A retrospective investigation

Behav Brain Res. 2019 Dec 16;375:112145. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2019.112145. Epub 2019 Aug 7.


Maternal exposure to stress during pregnancy is associated with increased risk for cognitive and behavioral sequelae in offspring. Animal research demonstrates exposure to stress during gestation has effects on brain structure. In humans, however, little is known about the enduring effects of in utero exposure to maternal stress on brain morphology. We examine whether maternal report of stressful events during pregnancy is associated with brain structure and behavior in adolescents. We compare gray matter morphometry of typically-developing early adolescents (11-14 years of age, mean 12.7) at a single timepoint, based on presence/absence of retrospectively-assessed maternal report of negative major life event stress (MLES) during pregnancy: prenatal stress (PS; n = 28), comparison group (CG; n = 55). The Drug Use Screening Inventory Revised (DUSI-R) assessed adolescent risk for problematic behaviors. Exclusionary criteria included pre-term birth, low birth weight, and maternal substance use during pregnancy. Groups were equivalent for demographic (age, sex, IQ, SES, race/ethnicity), and birth measures (weight, length). Compared to CG peers, adolescents in the PS group exhibited increased gray matter density in bilateral posterior parietal cortex (PPC): bilateral intraparietal sulcus, left superior parietal lobule and inferior parietal lobule. Additionally, the PS group displayed greater risk for psychiatric symptoms and family system dysfunction, as assessed via DUSI-R subscales. These preliminary findings suggest that prenatal exposure to maternal MLES may exact enduring associations on offspring brain morphology and psychiatric risk, highlighting the importance of capturing these data in prospective longitudinal research studies (beginning at birth) to elucidate these associations.

Keywords: Adolescent development; Magnetic resonance imaging; Parietal cortex; Prenatal exposure delayed effects; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Mothers / psychology
  • Parietal Lobe / drug effects
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders