Maternal psychosocial stress during pregnancy can impact the developing fetal brain and influence offspring mental health. In this context, animal studies have identified the hippocampus and amygdala as key brain regions of interest, however, evidence in humans is sparse. We, therefore, examined the associations between maternal prenatal psychosocial stress, newborn hippocampal and amygdala volumes, and child social-emotional development. In a sample of 86 mother-child dyads, maternal perceived stress was assessed serially in early, mid and late pregnancy. Following birth, newborn (aged 5-64 postnatal days, mean: 25.8 ± 12.9) hippocampal and amygdala volume was assessed using structural magnetic resonance imaging. Infant social-emotional developmental milestones were assessed at 6- and 12-months age using the Bayley-III. After adjusting for covariates, maternal perceived stress during pregnancy was inversely associated with newborn left hippocampal volume (β = -0.26, p = .019), but not with right hippocampal (β = -0.170, p = .121) or bilateral amygdala volumes (ps > .5). Furthermore, newborn left hippocampal volume was positively associated with infant social-emotional development across the first year of postnatal life (B = 0.01, p = .011). Maternal perceived stress was indirectly associated with infant social-emotional development via newborn left hippocampal volume (B = -0.34, 95% CIBC [-0.97, -0.01]), suggesting mediation. This study provides prospective evidence in humans linking maternal psychosocial stress in pregnancy with newborn hippocampal volume and subsequent infant social-emotional development across the first year of life. These findings highlight the importance of maternal psychosocial state during pregnancy as a target amenable to interventions to prevent or attenuate its potentially unfavorable neural and behavioral consequences in the offspring.
Keywords: Brain development; Hippocampus; Newborn; Pregnancy; Psychosocial stress; Social-emotional development.
© 2021 The Authors.