Inflammation in pregnant mothers is linked to their offspring’s brain organization as newborns and working memory performance at age two, reports a study published online this week in Nature Neuroscience. Although the study does not establish a direct, causal relationship, it does corroborate preclinical and public health studies that highlight the importance of inflammation during pregnancy to neonatal brain development.
Inflammation in pregnant mothers, whether from infection, injury or other factors, has been linked to an increased risk of mental and physical health issues in their offspring. These relationships are challenging to directly observe in humans, however.
Damien Fair and colleagues followed 84 women from pregnancy to early motherhood. They first measured blood levels of an inflammatory protein in the mothers during early, middle and late pregnancy. After birth they measured each infant’s brain activity at rest with functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine the pattern of the newborn’s brain network organization. Later, at age two, they used a task to test the children’s working memory - the ability to hold items in mind temporarily - as an important aspect of executive function that can be reliably assessed.
Using machine learning techniques, the authors find a strong link between neonatal brain organization and the level of maternal inflammation, as well as between maternal inflammation and working memory later in childhood. More specifically, the patterns of functional connections in newborns’ brains - particularly in regions associated with working memory - can be used to estimate maternal inflammation levels. In turn, higher levels of maternal inflammation, especially late in gestation, are predictive of poorer working memory in toddlers.