Infections during pregnancy affects brain development in the fetal stage

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A study published in the journal of Neuroscience on Monday revealed that infections or other triggers for a pregnant mother’s immune system can affect her baby’s brain development.

A team led by Bradley Peterson at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles found that short- and long-term brain functioning can be influenced by immune system activity during the third trimester of gestation.

Many triggers can generate immune responses, such as infections, stress, illness, or allergies. When the body’s immune system detects one of these triggers, proteins are released as part of an inflammatory response.

The study recruited young women in their second trimester and involved a blood draw and fetal heart monitoring during the third trimester, anatomical brain scans of the newborns, and cognitive behavioral assessment of the babies at 14 months of age.

Blood drawn from mothers during their third trimester was tested for levels of IL-6 and CRP, two proteins that are found at higher levels when the immune system is activated. Also, Peterson’s team monitored fetal heart rate as an indicator for nervous system development.

The team found that CRP did correlate with variability of the fetal heart rate, which is influenced heavily by the nervous system, indicating that maternal inflammation was already beginning to shape brain development.

When babies were born, they were given brain scans in their first few weeks of life. It revealed significant changes in the communication between specific brain regions correlated with elevated maternal IL-6 and CRP levels.

These brain regions are known collectively as the salience network, whose job is to filter stimuli coming into the brain and determine which deserve attention.

Disturbances in the functioning of this network have been linked to development of psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders.

Peterson’s study is the first to link maternal inflammation directly to disruptions in the salience network in infants.

The study also found that the correlations of elevated maternal inflammatory markers were not limited to the newborn period, but continued to persist into toddlerhood.

“This study indicates that markers of inflammation in a mom’s blood can be associated with short- and long-term changes in their child’s brain, which will now allow us to identify ways to prevent those effects and ensure children develop in the healthiest possible way beginning in the womb,” said Peterson.

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