Symptoms of depression in mothers during pregnancy are connected to the atypical ageing of their children’s brains, which in turn is associated with greater anxiety and moodiness in young adulthood. This finding was made by neuroscientist Klára Marečková from Milan Brázdil’s research group at CEITEC MU in collaboration with Canadian scientists from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
Foetal brain development is critical for forming the brain structures and functional connections that affect the risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders. Because up to the 40 percent of women suffer from depression during pregnancy, which is associated with anxiety and depression in their children, these scientists sought to discover the exact mechanisms behind this link.
“Based on previous research describing the biological mechanisms shared by depression and ageing, which demonstrated that depression may be associated with accelerated molecular ageing, we assumed that the connection between maternal depression during pregnancy and anxiety and depression in children could be, at least partially, explained by deviations from normative brain development patterns,” explains Klára Marečková, the lead author of the study.
The Czech-Canadian research team eventually found that greater maternal depression was linked to accelerated brain ageing in children. Greater brain age, as well as lower brain age, in adolescents is associated with increased anxiety and depression.
When the brain ages more quickly, or in contrast more slowly, it may contribute to psychological problems. The researchers have also demonstrated that increased brain ageing may explain the relationship between maternal depression during pregnancy and adolescent depression. Big data from long-term studies It was a long road to making these findings. Because brain structure changes with age, the scientists first had to model these changes using a large dataset. To do so, they used the Neuroanatomical Age Prediction (NAPR) model, which is based on data from brain MRI scans from thousands of people aged 6–89. To estimate the brain age of adults, they used Czech data from the European Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood (ELSPAC). In this study, children born in 1991–92 were observed for a period of more than 20 years. When they were 23 or 24, MRI scans were conducted.
This model and the ELSPAC MRI results convinced researchers that not every brain ages at the same rate. “When we calculated the brain ages of our study participants, we noticed that although their chronological age was 23 or 24, their brain ages ranged from 14 to 41. The difference between brain age and chronological age therefore ranged from -10 to +20 years,” explains Marečková.
The researchers therefore assessed the relationship between maternal depression during pregnancy, the difference between brain age and chronological age, and depression in young adulthood. They found that participants who deviated substantially from normative brain development patterns, both positively and negatively, indicated greater symptoms of anxiety and depression. More complex modelling then revealed that for those whose brain age was greater than their chronological age, accelerated brain ageing explained the relationship between depression in pregnant women and the intensity of anxiety and depression experienced by their children in young adulthood.
These findings confirm that maternal depression during pregnancy can have long-term impacts on offspring. They also reveal a mechanism that may be able to explain this phenomenon and thus help understand how prenatal risk factors can result in a greater tendency to suffer from neuropsychiatric disorders in adulthood. “Our research can also contribute to improving early intervention and prevention of depression,” adds Marečková.