Untreated Prenatal Depression Is Associated with Premature Brain Development in Children

Researchers have found that untreated depression during pregnancy is associated with changes in her child’s brain development. Depression during the second trimester was linked to reduced cortical thickness once the child was preschool-aged. The findings emphasize the importance of mental healthcare for pregnant women. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Prenatal depression, a form of depression that occurs during pregnancy, affects up to 20% of pregnant women. Severe stress, changes in the body, and a history of mental illness can all be linked to prenatal depression. For some women, the exact cause is unclear. Treatment usually consists of counseling and stress management though more extreme cases may require medication. Many women with untreated prenatal depression will develop postpartum depression after giving birth. Since depression can affect the development of the fetus, mental healthcare is critical during and after pregnancy.

A team of researchers from the University of Calgary in Alberta studied 52 pregnant women. The women were screened for symptoms of depression throughout the pregnancy. Follow-up studies were conducted after the women gave birth. The team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to study brain structures once the children were preschool-aged.

The researchers found that the children of women who had showed signs of depression during pregnancy had differences in brain structure. Women with prenatal depression had children with thinner cortexes, the brain’s outer layer that is responsible for many higher brain functions. This thinning is normal as children age but appeared to begin early in children of women with depression. The team isn’t sure if this premature brain development is harmful but previous studies have associated abnormal brain development with behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and mental illness.

The team’s findings show that mental healthcare, often overlooked during pregnancy, can help prevent abnormal brain development in children. The authors believe that depression symptoms need to be monitored throughout the entire pregnancy. Currently, many doctors only screen for these symptoms after the women has already given birth.


Lebel et al. Prepartum and Postpartum Maternal Depressive Symptoms Are Related to Children’s Brain Structure in Preschool. Biological Psychiatry (2016).

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