Editors' ChoiceNeurodevelopment

Mother’s inflammation shapes baby’s brain

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science Translational Medicine  02 May 2018:
Vol. 10, Issue 439, eaat8524
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aat8524

Abstract

Exposure to maternal inflammation during pregnancy affects newborn brain organization and cognitive abilities during early childhood.

Mother’s physical and psychiatric states during pregnancy have a significant impact on the development and function of fetal organs and can consequently lead to adverse long-term health consequences. The brain is particularly susceptible to adverse gestational environments, and emerging evidence suggests that inflammatory processes that affect the mother during pregnancy may lead to poor neurodevelopmental outcomes in the offspring. For example, large epidemiological studies show that offspring exposed to mothers with high levels of inflammation during pregnancy are at an increased risk for developing neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

A new study by Rudolph et al. aimed to provide new insights on the impact of exposure to maternal inflammation during pregnancy on baby’s brain organization and future cognitive abilities. The longitudinal study followed women throughout pregnancy and sampled their blood during each trimester to measure levels of interleukin 6 (IL-6), an inflammatory marker that is linked to cognitive deficits in exposed offspring. Within about a month after birth, their babies underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to measure functional connectivity patterns among brain networks, providing an overview of their brain network organization. Two years later, the children returned to perform a test of working memory, a key component of executive function related to the development of academic and social skills.

The results show a significant association between the baby’s functional connectivity patterns and their mother’s IL-6 levels during pregnancy. Interestingly, the scientists could use the baby’s functional connectivity patterns to predict the mother’s IL-6 levels during pregnancy. The brain networks that most closely predicted maternal IL-6 levels were networks known to be involved with working memory. Importantly, they also showed that higher IL-6 levels in the mothers during pregnancy were predictive of worse working memory performance when the offspring reached 2 years of age.

The biological or psychological factors that cause maternal inflammation during pregnancy were not identified in the current study. In addition, future studies are required to determine if the differences observed in the babies’ functional brain organization affect their long-term cognitive abilities or neurodevelopmental outcomes. Nevertheless, these findings highlight an important role of exposure to maternal inflammation during pregnancy on newborn brain organization and cognitive abilities during early childhood.

Highlighted Article

View Abstract

Navigate This Article