1. Study suggests excess of methionine during pregnancy may play a role in schizophrenia

    August 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Irvine press release:

    An abundance of an amino acid called methionine, which is common in meat, cheese and beans, may provide new clues to the fetal brain development that can manifest in schizophrenia, University of California, Irvine pharmacology researchers report in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

    The findings point to the role methionine overload can play during pregnancy and suggest that targeting the effects of this amino acid may lead to new antipsychotic drugs.

    The UCI study also provides detailed information on the neural developmental mechanisms of the methionine effect, which results in changes in the expression of several genes important to healthy brain growth and, in particular, to one linked to schizophrenia in humans.

    Amal Alachkar and colleagues based their approach on studies from the 1960s and 1970s in which schizophrenic patients injected with methionine experienced worsened symptoms. Knowing that schizophrenia is a developmental disorder, the UCI team hypothesized that administering three times the normal daily input of methionine to pregnant mice may produce pups that have also schizophrenia-like deficits, which is what occurred.

    The pups of the injected mothers displayed deficits in nine different tests encompassing the three schizophrenia-like symptoms behaviors — “positive” symptoms of overactivity and stereotypy, “negative” symptoms of human interaction deficits, and “cognitive impairments” memory loss.

    The research team treated the mice with anti-schizophrenic drugs well used in therapy. A drug that in schizophrenics treats mostly the positive symptoms (haloperidol) did the same in the mice, and a drug that treat preferentially the negative symptoms and the cognitive impairments (clozapine) did the same.

    Alachkar, an associate adjunct professor of pharmacology, said that the study is the first to present a mouse model based on methionine-influenced neural development that leads to schizophrenic-like behaviors.

    “This mouse model provides much broader detail of biological processes of schizophrenia and thus reflect much better the disorder than in the animal models presently widely used in drug discovery,” said Olivier Civelli, chair and professor of pharmacology and an author on the paper.

    “Our study also agrees with the saying, ‘we are what our mothers ate’,” Alachkar added. “Methionine is one of the building blocks of proteins. It is not synthesized by our bodies, and it needs to be ingested. Our study points at the very important role of excess dietary methionine during pregnancy in fetal development, which might have a long-lasting influence on the offspring. This is a very exciting area of research that we hope can be explored in greater depth.”


  2. Too much stress for the mother affects the baby through amniotic fluid

    June 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Zürich press release:

    If the mother is stressed over a longer period of time during pregnancy, the concentration of stress hormones in amniotic fluid rises, as proven by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Zurich. Short-term stress situations, however, do not seem to have an unfavorable effect on the development of the fetus.

    The feeling of constantly being on edge, always having to take care of everything, not being able to find a balance: If an expectant mother is strongly stressed over a longer period of time, the risk of the unborn child developing a mental or physical illness later in life — such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or cardiovascular disease — increases. The precise mechanism of how stress affects the baby in the womb is not yet been completely clarified. In cooperation with the University Hospital Zurich and the Max Planck Institute Munich, researchers of the University of Zurich have discovered that physical stress to the mother can change the metabolism in the placenta and influence the growth of the unborn child.

    Stress hormone affects the growth of the fetus

    When stressed, the human body releases hormones to handle the higher stress, such as the so-called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which results in an increase in stress hormone cortisol. This mechanism also persists during pregnancy, and the placenta, which supplies the fetus with nutrients, can also emit stress hormone CRH. As a result, a small amount of this hormone enters the amniotic fluid and fetal metabolism. Animal studies have shown that this hormone can boost the development of the unborn child: Unfavorable growth conditions in the woman lead to an increased release of the hormone, thereby improving the chances of survival in case of a premature birth. Under certain circumstances, however, this increase can also have negative consequences: “An excessive acceleration of growth may occur at the expense of the proper maturation of the organs,” says Ulrike Ehlert, psychologist and program coordinator.

    Short-term stress — no effect

    How does mental stress to the mother affect the release of stress hormones in the placenta? The research team tested 34 healthy pregnant women, who took part in amniocentesis within the scope of prenatal diagnostics. Such a test constitutes a stress situation for the expectant mother as her body secretes cortisol in the short term. To determine whether the placenta also releases stress hormones, the researchers compared the cortisol level in the mother’s saliva with the CRH level in the amniotic fluid — and determined that there was no connection: “The baby obviously remains protected against negative effects in case of acute, short-term stress to the mother,” Ehlert concludes.

    Longer-term stress can be measured in amniotic fluid

    The situation of the results regarding prolonged stress is completely different, as was determined using questionnaires for diagnosing chronic social overload: “If the mother is stressed for a longer period of time, the CRH level in the amniotic fluid increases,” says Pearl La Marca-Ghaemmaghami, psychologist and program researcher. This higher concentration of stress hormone in turn accelerates the growth of the fetus. As a result, the effect of the hormone on growth is confirmed, as has been observed in animals such as tadpoles: If their pond is on the verge of drying out, CRH is released in tadpoles, thereby driving their metamorphosis. “The corticotropin-releasing hormone CRH obviously plays a complex and dynamic role in the development of the human fetus, which needs to be better understood,” La Marca-Ghaemmaghami summarizes.

    Strengthening mental resources with specialized help

    The psychologists advise pregnant women who are exposed to longer-term stress situations to “seek support from a therapist to handle the stress better.” Stress during pregnancy cannot always be avoided, however. “A secure bond between the mother and child after the birth can neutralize negative effects of stress during pregnancy,” La Marca-Ghaemmaghami says.


  3. Mindfulness-focused childbirth education leads to less depression

    June 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Wisconsin-Madison press release:

    Mindfulness may be good for new moms.

    A study this month from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) shows mindfulness training that addresses fear and pain during childbirth can improve women’s childbirth experiences and reduce their depression symptoms during pregnancy and the early postpartum period.

    “Fear of the unknown affects us all, and perhaps none more so than pregnant women,” says lead author Larissa Duncan, UW-Madison professor of human development and family studies. “With mindfulness skills, women in our study reported feeling better able to cope with childbirth and they experienced improved mental well-being critical for healthy mother-infant adjustment in the first year of life.”

    The study also suggests that pregnant women who practice mindfulness may use less medication for pain during labor. Many women and their healthcare providers are concerned about the use of medications during pregnancy, labor and while breastfeeding because of the potential risks to infants. Yet, left untreated, maternal mental health problems also pose a significant risk to infants.

    “A mindfulness approach offers the possibility of decreasing the need for these medications and can reach women who may not know they are at risk for perinatal depression or can’t access mental health services,” Duncan says.

    The new study, published in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, is a randomized, controlled trial called Prenatal Education About Reducing Labor Stress (PEARLS), compares mainstream childbirth education with childbirth education that includes mindfulness skills focused on reducing fear among first-time mothers. Fear of childbirth has been shown in previous studies to be linked to poorer labor-and-delivery outcomes and to depression.

    While many consider childbirth education classes a primary resource for pregnant women and their partners to learn information and strategies for the birthing process and remedies for coping with labor pain, there is limited data that demonstrates they achieve these goals for the more than 2 million pregnant women who attend them each year in the United States.

    In fact, Duncan says, “sometimes women report that the information in childbirth education actually increases their fear of childbirth.”

    For the study, considered a pilot because funding limited participation to 30 women and their partners, first-time mothers late in their third trimester of pregnancy were offered either a standard childbirth preparation course lacking a mind-body focus or an intensive weekend workshop called Mind in Labor: Working with Pain in Childbirth.

    The workshop was based on the Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting education course developed by study co-author, Nancy Bardacke, a certified nurse-midwife and senior mindfulness teacher at UCSF. It focused on practices like mindful movement, walking meditation, and pain coping strategies. Previous research shows that mindfulness training can be an effective way to manage both chronic and acute pain.

    Participants represented a diversity of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. They completed self-reported assessments before and after taking part in a childbirth education course and after giving birth. The mindfulness group also received handouts and guided audio materials so they could practice mindfulness on their own. The study team collected medical record data from each woman.

    The researchers found a reduction in depression symptoms in the mindfulness group, which continued through their post-birth follow up at approximately six weeks. In contrast, depression symptoms worsened among women who participated in the standard childbirth education courses.

    While mothers in the mindfulness group sought epidurals at similar rates to those in the control group and retrospectively reported similar levels of perceived pain during labor, the study did see a trend toward lower use of opioid-based pain medication during labor. While these results were not statistically significant, the rate of narcotic use during labor was around 62 percent in the control group and just 31 percent in the mindfulness group. A larger study is needed to better understand this effect.

    “The encouraging results of this small study point to the possibility that mindfulness skills can transform the way expectant parents prepare for this profound life change,” says Bardacke. “In addition to supporting moms and babies, we may also be benefiting fathers, who are themselves experiencing the birth of their child and becoming parents. While more research is clearly needed, the larger public health implications of this work are motivating.”


  4. Exposure to alcohol before birth may make drinking more appealing to teens

    May 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Physiological Society (APS) press release:

    A new study suggests that fetal alcohol exposure (FAE) reduces the taste system’s responsiveness to the bitter flavor and burning sensation of many varieties of alcoholic beverages. These factors make alcohol unappealing to some people, but, for reasons that are unclear, are less of a deterrent in young people exposed to alcohol before birth. The study is published ahead of print in the Journal of Neurophysiology.

    Previous studies have found that FAE reduces the sense of smell of alcohol and that teens exposed to alcohol in utero have an increased risk of alcohol abuse. “It is possible that FAE makes the flavor of alcohol less aversive. This could increase the risk of adolescents experimenting with alcohol and developing a pattern of abuse,” the research team wrote.

    The researchers compared oral sensory responses to alcohol and its flavor components, namely bitter (quinine), sweet (sugar) and burning and irritation (capsaicin and mustard oil) in an adolescent rat model of FAE and control rats. They recorded responses from two nerves that convey input about taste to the brain and one nerve that conveys input about oral burning and irritation to the brain (trigeminal nerve).

    Compared with control rats, the taste nerves of FAE rats showed weaker responses to alcohol and quinine taste during adolescence. The reduced responses of these taste nerves to quinine persisted into adulthood, implying lifelong alterations in bitter taste function. The FAE rats also had reduced trigeminal responses to alcohol, capsaicin and mustard oil during adolescence.

    “Our results demonstrate that FAE reprograms development of the rat’s peripheral taste and trigeminal systems,” the research team wrote. More study is needed to determine exactly how alcohol exposure before birth reprograms different parts of the nervous system, the researchers noted. The article, “Fetal alcohol exposure reduces responsiveness of taste nerves and trigeminal chemosensory neurons to ethanol and its flavor components,” is published ahead of print in the Journal of Neurophysiology.


  5. Study suggests taking folic acid supplements during pregnancy may improve psychological development in children

    May 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the British Psychological Society press release:

    Children’s emotional intelligence improved if mums take folic acid supplements throughout pregnancy.

    Taking folic acid supplements throughout pregnancy may improve psychological development in children.

    That is the finding of research by Professor Tony Cassidy and colleagues from Ulster University who will present their study to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society in Brighton.

    Professor Cassidy said: “There is evidence that folic acid supplements taken during the first three months of pregnancy can have beneficial effects on children’s brain development. We wanted to investigate whether continued supplementation throughout pregnancy had any additional effects.”

    The researchers asked the parents of 39 children, now aged seven, to answer questions about their child’s personality, including levels of resilience, relationships with others and how they express their emotions. Within this group 22 mothers had taken the supplement throughout their pregnancy while the other 19 took it during the first three months only.

    Analysis showed that children whose mothers took the supplement throughout pregnancy demonstrated higher levels of emotional intelligence and resilience. Additionally, the level of folic acid in mother’s blood towards the end of pregnancy was a good predictor of children’s resilience and emotional intelligence.

    Professor Cassidy said: “Most expectant mothers know that taking folic acid supplements in the first three months of pregnancy is important for the baby’s spinal development. Our study shows that there are potential psychological benefits for the child if supplements are taken throughout the pregnancy.”


  6. Animal study shows harmful effects of secondhand smoke even before pregnancy

    January 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Duke University Medical Center media release:

    Exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke — even before conception — appears to have a lingering impact that can later impair the brain development of a fetus, researchers at Duke Health report.

    Using rats in experiments carefully designed to mimic the second-hand smoke exposures that humans encounter, the researchers found that the chemical components of tobacco smoke affect fetal brain development throughout pregnancy.

    The smoke exposure damages regions of the brain involved in learning, memory and emotional responses. Although the impact was most severe with exposures occurring in late gestation, adverse effects on the fetuses’ neuro-development occurred even when the mothers were only exposed prior to conception.

    “This finding has important implications for public health, because it reinforces the need to avoid secondhand smoke exposure not only during pregnancy, but also in the period prior to conception, or generally for women of childbearing age,” said Theodore A. Slotkin, Ph.D., professor in Duke’s Department Pharmacology & Cancer Biology.

    Slotkin and colleagues, publishing in the January issue of the journal Toxicological Sciences, simulated secondhand smoke exposure by capturing and extracting the chemical compounds of tobacco smoke and administering the solution through implanted pumps in the laboratory animals.

    That process eliminated the stress of breathing smoke, which in itself can potentially impact fetal brain development — a factor that had confounded earlier studies on the effects of tobacco smoke.

    Groups of female rats received the tobacco smoke extract during one of three periods: prior to mating, early gestation or late gestation. The researchers then studied the offspring starting in early adolescence and into adulthood, focusing on brain regions that are known to be adversely affected by nicotine and tobacco smoke.

    The researchers found that exposure to tobacco smoke extract in all three of the study periods resulted in the offspring having impaired function of the cholinergic brain circuits that govern learning and memory, and of the serotonin circuits that affect mood and emotional behavior.

    It is not known how the smoke exposure damages fetal brain development prior to pregnancy. The researchers said more study is needed, but potential causes include the lingering effects of some of the smoke components, which can remain in the body for several days after exposure. They also suggested that the chemicals might change the mother rat’s metabolism or hormonal status, or they could be causing an epigenetic alteration in the egg, which affects the activity of genes that control brain function.

    “Our study clearly shows there is no stage in which tobacco smoke is innocuous to the developing fetus,” Slotkin said. “We warn women about smoking during pregnancy, and most people are aware that secondhand smoke exposure is also harmful to the fetus, but our study is the first to show that exposure prior to conception is potentially damaging, as well. The public health implications should be obvious.”

    A prior study from the same team found a substantial portion of the tobacco smoke effect resulted from the nicotine in the smoke. That finding suggests that e-cigarettes could also represent a significant hazard for women of childbearing age.


  7. Gestational age may impact academic performance

    November 8, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Oxford University Press USA media release:

    pregnancy coupleA new study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology indicates that being born either too early or too late may have a long-term effect on children’s academic performance.

    The risk of cognitive and developmental problems in premature infants is well-established, but preventing preterm birth is limited clinically. By contrast, less is known about what happens to cognitive performance in children born post-term, or about the influence of birth weight variations within post-term populations, where there may be more scope for intervention.

    This study details the relationship between gestational age at birth and school grades at age 16 across the full range of pregnancy duration (22 to 45 completed weeks), by weight-for-gestational age, focusing on extremely pre- and post-term births and taking account of possible effects within and between families.

    Using the whole Swedish population, over 2 million live births between 1973 and 1994 were linked to the National School Register and other registers from Statistics Sweden and the National Board of Health and Welfare. Academic performance was measured by the final grade achieved on completing secondary education at 16.

    Between 1973 and 1994, 9.4% of Swedish births were post-term and 4.6% preterm. Late preterm children (3.6%) were more likely to have been exposed to maternal medical risk or birth complications.

    Grade averages were lower for pre- and post-term children than for term-counterparts, and were lowest in children showing evidence of poor fetal growth, irrespective of gestational age. The adjusted grades of extremely preterm children (at 24 completed weeks) were lower by 0.43 standard deviations (95% confidence interval 0.38 to 0.49) corresponding with a 21 point reduction (19 to 24) on a 240-point scale, although they had improved over time. The grades of extremely post-term children (at 45 completed weeks) were lower by 0.15 SD (0.13 to 0.17), corresponding with an 8 point reduction (7 to 9). Grades of pre- and post-term children remained lower than those of term counterparts when considering spontaneous deliveries, uncomplicated unassisted deliveries, children with normal Apgar, or without congenital anomalies. However, induced post-term deliveries were not associated with reduced school performance.

    Among matched siblings, within-family effects were weaker, particularly in the preterm sibling cohort and less so in post-term children. This attenuation of effect suggests confounding by unmeasured familial traits. Residual within-family associations suggested there may also be direct causal links between birth at early or late GA and school-leaving age academic performance.

    This is the first study to detail associations between pregnancy duration and school performance across the full range of pregnancy. Irrespective of gestational age at birth, there was an independent effect of fetal growth restriction on later school performance which has persisted over time. There may be shared familial traits which influence risk of birth at non-optimal gestational age and also affect the academic performance of those born early or late. These may include modifiable risk factors such as poor maternal diet, smoking during pregnancy, and maternal obesity.

    Less favorable outcomes of post-term infants with poor fetal growth suggest that placental insufficiency may become particularly toxic to neurodevelopment the longer a pregnancy endures,” said lead author Dr Hein Heuvelman.


  8. Powerful genetic regulator identified as risk factor for schizophrenia

    April 25, 2016 by Ashley

    From the The Mount Sinai Hospital / Mount Sinai School of Medicine media release:

    lab_researchBy turning skin cells into brain neurons, researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have identified that certain tiny molecules aiding in gene expression, known as microRNAs (miRNAs), are under-expressed in the brains of the 14 schizophrenia patients they studied. Their findings, published online in the journal Cell Reports, show that one of these molecules, a miRNA known as miR-9, is a risk factor that controls the activity of hundreds of genes.

    The researchers, led by Kristen Brennand, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Gang Fang, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences, Icahn School of Medicine, found that miR-9 was significantly under-expressed in cells from four schizophrenic patients, compared to six control participants. The findings were replicated in a larger sample, from the National Institutes of Health, of ten childhood-onset schizophrenic patients and ten controls.

    Schizophrenia is a very complex disorder that is believed to be strongly genetically influenced — there are probably more than 1,000 genes contributing to its development, some or many of which will affect individual patients,” says Kristen Brennand, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and one of the study’s lead authors. “The better we are able to fill in the pieces to this very difficult puzzle, the more we can think about treatment, and, better yet, prevention.”

    The genes controlled by miR-9 appear to play a role in the fetal development of neurons, and in where these neurons eventually settle in the brain. If these genes are not as active as they should be, the brain will likely be miswired, the authors suggest. miR-9 is only the second such powerful miRNA linked to the devastating psychiatric disorder, but researchers believe others may be involved.

    Dr. Brennand also says that based on their findings, as well as those of other researchers in the field, many genes recently found to be linked to schizophrenia tend to be genes that are expressed during fetal development–even though schizophrenia usually becomes symptomatic in adulthood. “The idea that children are born with schizophrenia should take the pressure off of parents,” she says. “This is a heritable disease that runs in families, and it’s no one’s fault that someone was born with this genetic risk.”

    Because the slow progress in decoding schizophrenia comes from the lack of live brain tissue to study, the research team combined expertise in stem cell biology, neurobiology, genomics, and systems biology to pioneer a new approach. They obtained skin samples from patients, reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells, and then differentiated these cells into precise subtypes of human neurons.

    This has allowed us to begin to ask how and why neurons derived from schizophrenia patients differ from those derived from people who are unaffected by the disorder,” Dr. Brennand says. “The goal of our research is to not just understand the genetic mechanisms contributing to schizophrenia, but ultimately to develop a screening platform that we can use to identify new therapeutics for the treatment of this debilitating disorder.”

    The team faced some challenges at the beginning of the project. “miR-9 was not the only miRNA that is differentially expressed in cells from schizophrenia patients compared to control participants,” said Gang Fang PhD, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences and the other lead author of the study. “In fact, tens of miRNAs reached statistical significance and we wanted to identify a smaller number of key players.

    We took a systems biology approach, where we integrated miRNA expression, gene expression, global gene regulatory networks, and proteomic data.”

    This approach found evidence suggesting miR-9 has the most significant change of regulatory activity in addition to the expression change of itself,” added Dr. Fang. “We hope this general approach will also help the discovery of additional genetic regulators of schizophrenia and other diseases.”

    D. Brennand and Dr. Fang highlight that their team’s findings validate results of an earlier study published March 9 in JAMA Psychiatry, in which a genetic screen, taken from the blood of 35,000 schizophrenia patients, found either low expression or mutations in the hundreds of genes that miR-9 controls.


  9. Exposure to violence during pregnancy increases risk of prematurity and low birthweight

    April 19, 2016 by Ashley

    From the University of Leicester media release:

    domestic violence abuseIn a recent paper published in the Journal of Development Economics, researchers Professor Marco Manacorda (Queen Mary University of London) and Dr Martin Foureaux Koppensteiner (University of Leicester) focused on evidence from the exposure of day-to-day violence in Brazil by analysing the birth outcomes of children whose mothers were exposed to local violence, as measured by homicide rates in small Brazilian municipalities and the neighbourhoods of the city of Fortaleza.

    The team estimated the effect of violence on birth outcomes by comparing mothers who were exposed to a homicide during pregnancy to otherwise similar mothers residing in the same area, who happened not to be exposed to homicides.

    The study found that birthweight falls significantly among newborns exposed to a homicide during pregnancy and the number of children classified as being low birthweight increases — and that the effects are concentrated on the first trimester of pregnancy, which is consistent with claims that stress-induced events matter most when occurring early in pregnancy.

    The study found:

    • One additional homicide in small municipalities during the first trimester leads to a reduction in birthweight of around 17g
    • Considering the birth weight classification, one extra homicide leads to an increase in the probability of low birthweight by 0.6 percentage points, an 8% increase compared to baseline
    • Results for the neighbourhoods of Fortaleza, where homicides are much more frequent, are considerably smaller (around 15% of the effects for small municipalities), which is consistent with the interpretation that violence is more stress inducing when they are rare
    • Because of the endemic levels of violence in Fortaleza, the team’s calculations show that homicides can account for 1% of the incidence of low birthweight and 3.5% of the incidence of very low birthweight.

    Dr Martin Foureaux Koppensteiner from the University of Leicester’s Department of Economics explained: “We provide evidence that these effects on birthweight are driven by prematurity rather than growth retardation of full lengths pregnancies, in line with evidence from the medical literature.

    “As the mothers examined in the study are likely to live in very similar environments, by exploiting the precise timing of the occurrence of homicides we are able to disentangle the causal effect of homicides from other correlated effects that may otherwise bias these estimates.

    This study used modelled data, which is one of the ways that we can predict causal relationships.

    “We also find that socio-economic factors, such as the mothers’ low level of education appear to amplify the adverse consequences of violence on birth outcomes, implying that violence compounds the disadvantage that newborns from low socio-economic status already suffer.”

    Professor Marco Manacorda added: “Our results have the potential to generalize to other settings where violence is endemic, as is true for many middle and low-income countries in Latin America and Africa. The results presented shed light on the additional cost of violence, largely ignored previously, in these countries.”

    The study was supported through a grant by the Inter-American Development Bank under the aegis of the programme ‘The Cost of Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean’.


  10. Depression study examines levels of oxytocin and its impacts on mother-baby emotional bonding

    March 30, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Florida Atlantic University media release:

    pregnancy husbandWidely referred to as the “love” hormone, oxytocin is an indispensable part of childbirth and emotional mother-child bonding.

    Psychologists at Florida Atlantic University are conducting a novel study to determine how a mother’s levels of oxytocin might be different in women with depression. The goal of this study is to look at how breastfeeding, oxytocin and face-to-face interactions between a mother and her baby are impacted by depression and the mother’s oxytocin levels.

    “We already know that pregnancy escalates oxytocin levels and that breastfeeding releases oxytocin, which have anti-depressive effects,” said Nancy Aaron Jones, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and director of the FAU WAVES Emotion Laboratory located on the John D. MacArthur Campus in Jupiter. “In this new study, we are looking at oxytocin levels in pre- and postpartum mothers who suffer from depression to see how they differ from mothers who don’t have depression. Another novel aspect of the study is that we also are examining the oxytocin levels of the infant once they are born and how these levels change across development.”

    Higher oxytocin levels in mothers may indicate higher oxytocin levels in infants, which occurs during breast feeding and interactive touching.

    We are really trying to understand how these varying levels of oxytocin affect the mother-infant emotional relationship as well as the baby’s emotional development and their emotional bond with their mother,” said Jones.

    New evidence shows that maternal mental illness is more common than previously thought and is estimated to occur in approximately 10 to 20 percent of new mothers. An independent panel of experts appointed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that women should be screened for depression during pregnancy and after giving birth.

    Using a multi-pronged approach for the study, Jones and her lab team follow moms-to-be from pregnancy through the first six months after delivery. They use surveys that address depression, breast feeding and bonding, conduct home visits, and collect urine samples from mothers and their babies to test their oxytocin levels. They also look at changes in the babies as they develop using a specially designed EEG or electroencephalogram cap that gauges brain wave activity. They do the EEG when the baby is 2 weeks old, 3 to 4 months old, and again at 6 months old. Jones looks at the asymmetry in the baby’s brain to see how the left and right sides of the brain are communicating, which has been associated with emotional experiences and learning.

    In our previous studies on breast feeding versus bottle feeding and depression, we found similar patterns of brain asymmetry in the baby and the mother,” said Jones. “What appears to be happening is that these babies are either inheriting or developing a pattern that is similar to their mother’s depression. They focus on the negative emotions and withdraw from stimuli as if they are withdrawing from the world.”

    Jones has enrolled close to 50 participants in this current study and hopes to increase that number to approximately 250. Comparison groups in the study include depressed and non-depressed, breast feeding vs. bottle feeding, different levels of feeding (breastfeeding at first or exclusive breast feeding), different levels of depression, and different levels of bonding.

    If depression in mothers-to-be is not addressed and treated, these mood disorders can negatively impact the child’s well-being and the important mother-child bonding process,” said Jones. “So many women don’t want to talk about depression in pregnancy or postpartum because they think that it’s saying something about their inability to parent, and it’s not. There are a lot of factors that are contributing to mental health including hormonal, cultural or just the stress that’s associated with being a parent. And all of these things can be helped.”

    The FAU WAVES Emotion Laboratory is focused on understanding the factors that contribute to the development of socio-emotional wellness during infancy and childhood. Funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health, research in the laboratory is designed to explore and understand the contributors to optimal infant and child development.