Background: Offspring exposed to prenatal maternal depression (PMD) are vulnerable to depression across their lifespan. The underlying cause(s) for this elevated intergenerational risk is most likely complex. However, depression is underpinned by a dysfunctional frontal-limbic network, associated with core information processing biases (e.g. attending more to sad stimuli). Aberrations in this network might mediate transmission of this vulnerability in infants exposed to PMD. In this study, we aimed to explore the association between foetal exposure to PMD and frontal-limbic network function in infancy, hypothesising that, in response to emotional sounds, infants exposed to PMD would exhibit atypical activity in these regions, relative to those not exposed to PMD.
Method: We employed a novel functional magnetic resonance imaging sequence to compare brain function, whilst listening to emotional sounds, in 78 full-term infants (3-6 months of age) born to mothers with and without a diagnosis of PMD.
Results: After exclusion of 19 datasets due to infants waking up, or moving excessively, we report between-group brain activity differences, between 29 infants exposed to PMD and 29 infants not exposed to PMD, occurring in temporal, striatal, amygdala/parahippocampal and frontal regions (p < 0.005). The offspring exposed to PMD exhibited a relative increase in activation to sad sounds and reduced (or unchanged) activation to happy sounds in frontal-limbic clusters.
Conclusions: Findings of a differential response to positive and negative valanced sounds by 3-6 months of age may have significant implications for our understanding of neural mechanisms that underpin the increased risk for later-life depression in this population.
Keywords: Emotional sounds; fMRI; infants; prenatal maternal depression.