Researchers have identified a link between common mental illnesses and complications during pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia and infections that lead to stress. The results of the study were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (stress during pregnancy).
Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School conducted a study that lasted 40 years. The researchers wanted to find out whether prenatal stress affected a person’s response to stressful situations in adulthood.
Experts followed 40 men and 40 women from the moment of birth to their fortieth birthday. Half of the participants had a history of severe depression or psychosis that was in remission.
The researchers say that the mothers of some of the study participants had complications during pregnancy, such as fever due to an infectious disease or pre-eclampsia. One in three mothers who participated in the study had an infectious disease, and one in six had preeclampsia, which increases the level of cytokines. It turns out that the experts analyzed the data of those people who in the womb were exposed to pro-inflammatory cytokines.
It is noted that tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-6 regulators of the immune system initiate inflammation in response to infection or injury. They can also be activated in response to stress.
The team evaluated the correlation between the participants neurological responses and their prenatal exposure to pro-inflammatory cytokines. The researchers did this by showing participants images designed to stimulate a stress response during an MRI scan of the brain.
It was found that prenatal exposure to pro-inflammatory cytokines caused by stress in mothers affected men and women after 40 years. Among all participants, lower prenatal levels of necrosis factor-alpha caused increased hypothalamus activity in adulthood. This area of the brain is responsible for regulating the level of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone.
However, only in men did lower levels of necrosis factor-alpha cause a more active connection between the hypothalamus and the anterior cingulate gyrus, which is responsible for controlling impulses and emotions. In female participants, higher levels of IL-6 in the prenatal period correlated with increased activity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that helps control memory and arousal associated with stressful stimuli.