Mom's Mental Health Influences on Pre-Birth Brain Hardwiring


Claire Donnici

Principal Investigator

Dr. Catherine Lebel


University of Calgary

Grant Type



Mental Health

About the researcher

Claire Donnici

Bachelor of Science Student at the University of Calgary

The impact

As any mother can tell you, children grow up quickly. Young childhood is a period of extensive brain development. During pregnancy, an unborn baby is sensitive to the health of the mother, and this critical period can affect a child throughout their development. This study looked specifically at the mental health of the mother during pregnancy and if there were differences in the way the brain’s fear center -the amygdala- functions in children’s first few years of life. Using non-invasive brain scans, they found that anxiety symptoms experienced by a mother during pregnancy are related to how their child’s amygdala communicates with other brain regions involved in emotional regulation; higher anxiety was linked to less communication. This could lead to the child having a vulnerability to mental health disorders through worse emotional regulation.

The study

If maternal anxiety is linked to negative outcomes in children, this suggests that treating maternal anxiety could not only benefit the mother, but the baby as well. This 2-for-1 deal sounds awesome, and while some drug-based treatments are safe, others could lead to side effects for the baby. Since neuroCAM treatments often have fewer side effects, they could be particularly well suited to address both the current mental health needs of the mother and future health of the baby.

What's next?

This work has identified a critical period of pregnancy (second trimester) where neuroCAM interventions might be most effective. Hopefully, informing mothers and health care practitioners of the importance of screening for anxiety before, during, and after this period could lead to more healthy babies. This study will next look at brain hard wiring both before and after birth to further explore the impact of mother’s anxiety on the child’s brain development. As a basic research study, these results will hopefully lead to improved NeuroCAM treatments for mothers in the future.

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Donnici, Claire & Long, Xiangyu & Reynolds, Jess & Giesbrecht, Gerald & Dewey, Deborah & Letourneau, Nicole & Huo, Yuankai & Landman, Bennett & Lebel, Catherine. (2023). Prenatal depressive symptoms and childhood development of brain limbic and default mode network structure. Human Brain Mapping. 44. 10.1002/hbm.26216.

Donnici, Claire & Long, Xiangyu & Dewey, Deborah & Letourneau, Nicole & Landman, Bennett & Huo, Yuankai & Lebel, Catherine. (2021). Prenatal and postnatal maternal anxiety and amygdala structure and function in young children. Scientific Reports. 11. 10.1038/s41598-021-83249-2.