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Maternal Depression Can Spread to Unborn Babies

Update Date: Dec 06, 2013 02:54 PM EST

Depression during pregnancy can spread from mother to baby, a new study suggests.

New research reveals that a combination of genetic and environmental factors can alter fetal brains and put children at a greater risk of developing depression themselves.

The latest study revealed that exposure to depression in the womb can alter the amygdala, a brain structure responsible for regulating emotion and stress.

Past studies have assessed children years after birth, but have not determined when the brain alterations begin.

Lead researcher Dr. Anqi Qiu at the National University of Singapore and colleagues recruited 157 pregnant women who completed a depression questionnaire during the 26th week of pregnancy. Within to weeks of birth, babies underwent MRI scans to determine the structure of their brains.

While the mother's level of depression had no effect on the volume of the brains of babies, the findings revealed that babies of depressed mothers had reduced "structural connectivity" or abnormal wiring in their amygdala. 

The latest findings suggest that abnormal amygdala function, a feature of mood and anxiety disorders, can be passed from mothers to babies before birth, according to researchers. They said that a history of maternal depression might contribute to a life-long increase in the vulnerability to mental illness.

Researchers said that the findings highlight the importance of mental health screenings for pregnant women. Rsearchers said that the study supports that "interventions targeting maternal depression should begin early in pregnancy," according to a news release.

"Attention to maternal health during pregnancy is an extremely high priority for society for many reasons," Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, said in a news release. "The notion that maternal depression might influence the brain development of their babies is very concerning. The good news is that this risk might be reduced by systematic screening of pregnant women for depression and initiating effective treatment."

The findings are published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

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