Prenatal and Postnatal Maternal Depressive Symptoms Are Associated With White Matter Integrity in 5-Year-Olds in a Sex-Specific Manner

Biol Psychiatry. 2023 May 21;S0006-3223(23)01301-X. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2023.05.014. Online ahead of print.


Background: Prenatal and postnatal maternal psychological distress predicts various detrimental consequences on social, behavioral, and cognitive development of offspring, especially in girls. Maturation of white matter (WM) continues from prenatal development into adulthood and is thus susceptible to exposures both before and after birth.

Methods: WM microstructural features of 130 children (mean age, 5.36 years; range, 5.04-5.79 years; 63 girls) and their association with maternal prenatal and postnatal depressive and anxiety symptoms were investigated with diffusion tensor imaging, tract-based spatial statistics, and regression analyses. Maternal questionnaires were collected during first, second, and third trimesters and at 3, 6, and 12 months postpartum with the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) for depressive symptoms and Symptom Checklist-90 for general anxiety. Covariates included child's sex; child's age; maternal prepregnancy body mass index; maternal age; socioeconomic status; and exposures to smoking, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and synthetic glucocorticoids during pregnancy.

Results: Prenatal second-trimester EPDS scores were positively associated with fractional anisotropy in boys (p < .05, 5000 permutations) after controlling for EPDS scores 3 months postpartum. In contrast, postpartum EPDS scores at 3 months correlated negatively with fractional anisotropy (p < .01, 5000 permutations) in widespread areas only in girls after controlling for prenatal second-trimester EPDS scores. Perinatal anxiety was not associated with WM structure.

Conclusions: These results suggest that prenatal and postnatal maternal psychological distress is associated with brain WM tract developmental alterations in a sex- and timing-dependent manner. Future studies including behavioral data are required to consolidate associative outcomes for these alterations.

Keywords: DTI; Early stress; Maternal depression; White matter development.