Inflammation during pregnancy increases risk for brain development issues

April 9 (UPI) — The children of pregnant women with higher inflammation are at increased risk for brain development problems, including mental illness, according to a study.

Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland found a link between inflammation during pregnancy and issues in the way a newborn’s brain is organized into networks. The findings were published Monday in Nature Neuroscience journal.

“Now, we have an approach that can utilize MRI brain scans of a newborn to accurately estimate the mother’s overall levels of inflammation during the time of her pregnancy,” Dr. Alice Graham, a postdoctoral fellow in behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine, said in a press release. “This understanding provides some information about future memory function of that child approximately two-years later, creating a potential opportunity for research surrounding early clinical intervention, if necessary.”

Researchers collected blood samples from 84 expectant mothers during each pregnancy trimester. Levels of the cytokine interleukin-6, or IL-6, an inflammatory marker known to play a role in fetal brain development, were measured.

Brain connectivity patterns of the babies at four weeks after birth were assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scans. Then at age 2, they were also tested for working memory performance.

Higher levels during pregnancy were linked to less working memory capacity in the child. It first showed up in newborn brain communication.

“Importantly, this doesn’t mean that every exposure to inflammation will result in a negative impact to the child; however, these findings provide new avenues for research, and can help health care providers think about how, and when, inflammation might impact a child’s long-term learning development and mental health,” Graham said.

A model, created using artificial intelligence known as machine-learning, can accurately estimate information about maternal inflammation during pregnancy based only on newborn brain functioning, Graham said.

Research should focus on how factors before and after birth, including society and environment, influence the impacts to brain function and cognition in newborns, according to study leader Dr.
Damien Fair, an associate professor of behavioral neuroscience and psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine.

“Increased stress and poor diet are considered normal by today’s standards, but greatly impact inflammation rates in all humans, not just expectant mothers,” he said. “Just as important to understanding how the immune system and inflammation affect early brain development, we also need to understand what common factors contribute to heightened inflammation so that we may target therapies to help reduce the rates of inflammation and overall impact on the developing brain.”