Maternal cortisol is associated with neonatal amygdala microstructure and connectivity in a sexually dimorphic manner

Elife. 2020 Nov 24:9:e60729. doi: 10.7554/eLife.60729.


The mechanisms linking maternal stress in pregnancy with infant neurodevelopment in a sexually dimorphic manner are poorly understood. We tested the hypothesis that maternal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity, measured by hair cortisol concentration (HCC), is associated with microstructure, structural connectivity, and volume of the infant amygdala. In 78 mother-infant dyads, maternal hair was sampled postnatally, and infants underwent magnetic resonance imaging at term-equivalent age. We found a relationship between maternal HCC and amygdala development that differed according to infant sex. Higher HCC was associated with higher left amygdala fractional anisotropy (β = 0.677, p=0.010), lower left amygdala orientation dispersion index (β = -0.597, p=0.034), and higher fractional anisotropy in connections between the right amygdala and putamen (β = 0.475, p=0.007) in girls compared to boys. Furthermore, altered amygdala microstructure was only observed in boys, with connectivity changes restricted to girls. Maternal cortisol during pregnancy is related to newborn amygdala architecture and connectivity in a sexually dimorphic manner. Given the fundamental role of the amygdala in the emergence of emotion regulation, these findings offer new insights into mechanisms linking maternal health with neuropsychiatric outcomes of children.

Keywords: amygdala; brain; cortisol; human; mri; neonate; neuroscience; prenatal stress.

Plain language summary

Stress during pregnancy, for example because of mental or physical disorders, can have long-term effects on child development. Epidemiological studies have shown that individuals exposed to stress in the womb are at higher risk of developmental and mood conditions, such as ADHD and depression. This effect is different between the sexes, and the biological mechanisms that underpin these observations are poorly understood. One possibility is that a baby’s developing amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions, is affected by a signal known as cortisol. This hormone is best known for its role in coordinating the stress response, but it also directs the growth of a fetus. Tracking fetal amygdala changes as well as cortisol levels in the pregnant individual could explain how stress during pregnancy affects development. To investigate, Stoye et al. recruited nearly 80 volunteers and their newborn children. MRI scans were used to examine the structure of the amygdala, and how it is connected to other parts of the brain. In parallel, the amount of cortisol was measured in hair samples collected from the volunteers around the time of birth, which reflects stress levels during the final three months of pregnancy. Linking the brain imaging results to the volunteers’ cortisol levels showed that being exposed to higher cortisol levels in the womb affected babies in different ways based on their sex: boys showed alterations in the fine structure of their amygdala, while girls displayed changes in the way that brain region connected to other neural networks. The work by Stoye et al. potentially reveals a biological mechanism by which early exposure to stress could affect brain development differently between the sexes, potentially informing real-world interventions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / anatomy & histology*
  • Amygdala / growth & development*
  • Female
  • Hair / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / chemistry
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Stress, Physiological*


  • Hydrocortisone