Maternal Psychosocial Stress Is Associated with Reduced Diversity in the Early Infant Gut Microbiome

Microorganisms. 2023 Apr 8;11(4):975. doi: 10.3390/microorganisms11040975.


The developing infant gut microbiome is highly sensitive to environmental exposures, enabling its evolution into an organ that supports the immune system, confers protection from infection, and facilitates optimal gut and central nervous system function. In this study, we focus on the impact of maternal psychosocial stress on the infant gut microbiome. Forty-seven mother-infant dyads were recruited at the HEAL Africa Hospital in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Extensive medical, demographic, and psychosocial stress data were collected at birth, and infant stool samples were collected at six weeks, three months, and six months. A composite maternal psychosocial stress score was created, based on eight questionnaires to capture a diverse range of stress exposures. Full-length 16S rRNA gene sequences were generated. Infants of mothers with high composite stress scores showed lower levels of gut microbiome beta diversity at six weeks and three months, as well as higher levels of alpha diversity at six months compared to infants of low stress mothers. Longitudinal analyses showed that infants of high stress mothers had lower levels of health-promoting Lactobacillus gasseri and Bifidobacterium pseudocatenulatum at six weeks compared to infants of low stress mothers, but the differences largely disappeared by three to six months. Previous research has shown that L. gasseri can be used as a probiotic to reduce inflammation, stress, and fatigue, as well as to improve mental state, while B. pseudocatenulatum is important in modulating the gut-brain axis in early development and in preventing mood disorders. Our finding of reduced levels of these health-promoting bacteria in infants of high stress mothers suggests that the infant gut microbiome may help mediate the effect of maternal stress on infant health and development.

Keywords: Bifidobacterium pseudocatenulatum; Lactobacillus gasseri; early infant gut; maternal psychosocial stress; microbial diversity and composition.