Pregnancy Discrimination can Impact Baby Brain Circuitry

Pregnancy Discrimination can Impact Baby Brain Circuitry

Discrimination and acculturation are known to have a negative impact on a person’s health. According to a new study from Yale and Columbia University, these painful experiences during pregnancy can also damage the brain circuitry of their children. According to the researchers, these effects are distinct from those induced by general stress and despair.

The findings were reported in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology

Previous study has shown that high levels of stress and depression are not only hazardous to the person experiencing them, but can also have long-term impacts on their children if experienced during pregnancy. Discrimination and acculturation — or the changes that occur as a result of migration and the subsequent balance of several, different cultures — have also been shown in recent studies to influence the adult brain. What is less known is how children’s experiences with discrimination and acculturation may influence them.

The researchers used known questionnaires to assess the level of prejudice, acculturation, and distress reported by 165 pregnant women in the new study. The participants were 14 to 19 years old, predominantly Hispanic (88%), and lived in or around New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. After that, the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess brain connectivity in 38 of the participants’ newborns.

The first stage, according to the researchers, was to assess whether discrimination and acculturation differed from other types of stress or depression.

“We thought that some of these experiences might go hand-in-hand or overlap, in which case it would be difficult to measure the effects of discrimination or acculturation on their own,” said Dustin Scheinost, associate professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the study.

Scheinost and his colleagues from Columbia and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles used a data analysis program to assess and group all of their separate questionnaire measures of acculturation, discrimination, stress, depression, childhood trauma, and socioeconomic status. This, according to the researchers, helped them grasp the extent to which different metrics may be used to evaluate similar experiences.

“That analysis clustered measures of stress and depression and separately pulled out discrimination and acculturation measures as their own distinct variables,” according to Scheinost. “That told us that while these experiences of discrimination are related to stress and depression, they are separate enough that we can look at their unique effects.”

When the researchers examined the MRI scans of the kids’ brains, they discovered disparities in the youngsters whose parents reported discrimination during pregnancy.

According to the researchers, the amygdala is a brain part connected with emotional processing that is extremely vulnerable to prenatal stress. Previous study has shown that early adversity has quantifiable effects on amygdala connection in newborns, children, adolescents, and adults. A increasing body of research also implies that the amygdala is involved in ethnic and racial processing, such as distinguishing between the faces of persons of different races or nationalities.

When the researchers examined connectivity between the amygdala and another region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with higher-order functioning, they discovered that children whose mothers experienced more discrimination during pregnancy had weaker connectivity between the two brain regions.

Our finding was consistent with what you expect to see in the brain of those affected by early life adversity either pre- or postnatally,” Scheinost said.

According to Scheinost, the message is that while prejudice and acculturation influence the brain in ways that other types of stress do, there is something special and vital about these experiences that should be better understood. Future research, he believes, should focus on whether other populations are similarly affected and what causes the consequences.

“We don’t know why this happens,” Scheinost stated. “So we need to investigate the biological mechanisms that carry these experiences of adversity from parent to offspring.”

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