Study confirms that inflammation during pregnancy is linked to baby's brain

April 9, 2018, Oregon Health & Science University
Damien Fair, PA-C, Ph.D., OHSU. Credit: OHSU

Inflammation is a normal part of the body's response to infection, chronic stress or obesity. In pregnant women, it is believed that heightened inflammation increases the risk of mental illness or brain development problems in children.

A study conducted by researchers at OHSU in Portland, Oregon, has established a link between in and the way the newborn brain is organized into networks. The results, published today in Nature Neuroscience, may provide promising avenues to explore treatments with potential to change these negative impacts on newborn brain function.

The research team, led by Damien Fair, P.A.-C., Ph.D., associate professor of behavioral neuroscience and psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine, and Claudia Buss, Ph.D., professor at the Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Berlin, Germany and associate professor at University of California Irvine, collected blood samples from 84 expectant mothers at each pregnancy trimester. The samples were measured for levels of the cytokine interleukin-6, or IL-6, an inflammatory marker known to play a role in fetal .

Four weeks following birth, brain connectivity patterns of the offspring were assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, scans. At age 2, the children were also tested for working memory performance, a key skill that supports academic achievement and is frequently compromised in mental health disorders.

The data from mother and child show that differences in the levels of inflammatory markers are directly associated with differences in newborn brain communication, and later to working memory scores at age 2. Higher levels of the marker during pregnancy tended to result in less working memory capacity in the child.

"Importantly, this doesn't mean that every exposure to inflammation will result in a negative impact to the child; however, these findings provide new avenues for research, and can help health care providers think about how, and when, inflammation might impact a child's long-term learning development and mental health," said Alice Graham, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine.

A notable aspect of the study, according to Graham, is the development of a model that can accurately estimate information about maternal inflammation during pregnancy based only on newborn brain functioning. Created using artificial intelligence known as machine-learning, the model is based on the biomarkers identified in the study and can be applied to cases beyond the initial research group.

"Now, we have an approach that can utilize MRI brain scans of a newborn to accurately estimate the mother's overall levels of inflammation during the time of her pregnancy," she said. "This understanding provides some information about future memory function of that child approximately two-years later, creating a potential opportunity for research surrounding early clinical intervention, if necessary."

In the future, Fair believes that research should focus on how factors before and after birth - such as society and environment - interact to influence the impacts to brain function and cognition in newborns.

"Increased stress and poor diet are considered normal by today's standards, but greatly impact inflammation rates in all humans, not just expectant mothers," he said. "Just as important to understanding how the immune system and inflammation affect , we also need to understand what common factors contribute to heightened inflammation so that we may target therapies to help reduce the rates of inflammation and overall impact on the developing ."

Explore further: Immune system activation in pregnant women can shape brain development in their babies

More information: Maternal IL-6 during pregnancy can be estimated from newborn brain connectivity and predicts future working memory in offspring, Nature Neuroscience (2018). nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/s41593-018-0128-y

Related Stories

Immune system activation in pregnant women can shape brain development in their babies

February 26, 2018
A landmark study published in the Journal of Neuroscience on February 26 reveals that activation of a pregnant mother's immune system can affect her baby's brain development. A team of researchers led by Bradley Peterson, ...

The effects of increased inflammatory markers during pregnancy

August 10, 2017
Researchers from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, in collaboration with colleagues from the U.S,. have shown that increased levels of inflammatory markers during pregnancy can lead to changes in fetal brain development ...

Study finds association between mother's larger waist size, child's autism risk

March 19, 2018
A new study finds children born to mothers who had a larger waist size before pregnancy may be more likely to have autism than those whose mothers had a smaller pre-pregnancy waist. The research results will be presented ...

Brain activity is inherited, may inform treatment for ADHD, autism

November 2, 2017
Every person has a distinct pattern of functional brain connectivity known as a connectotype, or brain fingerprint. A new study conducted at OHSU in Portland, Oregon, concludes that while individually unique, each connectotype ...

Mom's immune system shapes baby's brain

February 26, 2018
The state of a woman's immune system during pregnancy may shape the connectivity of her child's brain, suggests a study of teenage mothers published in JNeurosci. The research emphasizes the influence of maternal health on ...

Children born to mothers with low vitamin D levels may develop autism-like behaviors

March 20, 2018
Low levels of vitamin D during pregnancy and breast feeding may be related to an unusual pattern of brain development that can lead to differences in social behaviour of children in later life, according to a study published ...

Recommended for you

Children found capable of using the 'wisdom of crowds'

September 24, 2018
Children, like adults, can improve their response to difficult tasks by the power of group work, new research led by the University of Bristol has found.

Leading addiction experts call for more neuroscience research on long-term recovery

September 24, 2018
September is addiction recovery month, and, in the midst of the current opioid epidemic, it's an apt moment for addiction research experts to map the future path forward for a long-term recovery strategy for substance abuse. ...

To dispel myths, redirect the belief, study says

September 24, 2018
Beliefs can be hard to change, even if they are scientifically wrong. But those on the fence about an idea can be swayed after hearing facts related to the misinformation, according to a study led by Princeton University.

Overlooked signal in MRI scans reflects amount, kind of brain cells

September 24, 2018
An MRI scan often generates an ocean of data, most of which is never used. When overlooked data is analyzed using a new technique developed at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, they surprisingly reveal ...

Even mild physical activity immediately improves memory function, study finds

September 24, 2018
People who include a little yoga or tai chi in their day may be more likely to remember where they put their keys. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine and Japan's University of Tsukuba found that even very ...

Thousands of unknown DNA changes in the developing brain revealed by machine learning

September 24, 2018
Unlike most cells in the rest of our body, the DNA (the genome) in each of our brain cells is not the same: it varies from cell to cell, caused by somatic changes. This could explain many mysteries—from the cause of Alzheimer's ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.