Atypical brain structure and function in young adults exposed to disaster-related prenatal maternal stress: Project Ice Storm

J Neurosci Res. 2023 Dec;101(12):1849-1863. doi: 10.1002/jnr.25246. Epub 2023 Sep 21.


Studies have shown that prenatal maternal stress (PNMS) affects brain structure and function in childhood. However, less research has examined whether PNMS effects on brain structure and function extend to young adulthood. We recruited women who were pregnant during or within 3 months following the 1998 Quebec ice storm, assessed their PNMS, and prospectively followed-up their children. T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and resting-state functional MRI were obtained from 19-year-old young adults with (n = 39) and without (n = 65) prenatal exposure to the ice storm. We examined between-group differences in gray matter volume (GMV), surface area (SA), and cortical thickness (CT). We used the brain regions showing between-group GMV differences as seeds to compare between-group functional connectivity. Within the Ice Storm group, we examined (1) associations between PNMS and the atypical GMV, SA, CT, and functional connectivity, and (2) moderation by timing of exposure. Primarily, we found that, compared to Controls, the Ice Storm youth had larger GMV and higher functional connectivity of the anterior cingulate cortex, the precuneus, the left occipital pole, and the right hippocampus; they also had larger CT, but not SA, of the left occipital pole. Within the Ice Storm group, maternal subjective distress during preconception and mid-to-late pregnancy was associated with atypical left occipital pole CT. These results suggest the long-lasting impact of disaster-related PNMS on child brain structure and functional connectivity. Our study also indicates timing-specific effects of the subjective aspect of PNMS on occipital thickness.

Keywords: cortical thickness; gray matter volume; preconception; prenatal maternal stress; resting-state functional connectivity; surface area.