Domestic Abuse in Pregnancy Linked to Structural Brain Changes in Babies

Summary: Babies born to mothers who experience domestic violence during pregnancy have altered brain development and changes in brain structure. In females, maternal exposure to IPV was associated with a smaller amygdala, a brain area associated with social and emotional development. In males, the caudate nucleus size was increased. This brain area is associated with multiple functions including memory, learning, reward, and movement. The findings may explain why children of mothers who experience domestic abuse are more likely to suffer from mental health problems later in life.

Source: University of Bath

Domestic abuse against women during pregnancy can potentially have a significant impact on how the unborn baby’s brain develops, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Bath, working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Cape Town, analyzed brain scans of 143 South African infants whose mothers had been subject to intimate partner violence (IPV) during pregnancy. Intimate partner violence includes emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse or assault.

Brain MRI scans were taken when infants were just 3 weeks old on average so any changes that were observed are likely to have developed inside the womb.

Publishing their findings in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, the research team report that maternal exposure to IPV during pregnancy is associated with alterations in brain structure in young infants identified shortly after birth.

This was evident even when the researchers took into account maternal alcohol use and smoking throughout pregnancy as well as pregnancy complications.

Importantly, the effects of IPV exposure may differ by the baby’s sex.

For girls, their mother’s exposure to IPV during pregnancy was linked to a smaller amygdala, an area of the brain involved in emotional and social development.

For boys, IPV exposure was instead associated with a larger caudate nucleus, an area of the brain involved in multiple functions including the execution of movement, learning, memory, reward, and motivation.

Early changes to brain structures may explain why children whose mothers experience high levels of stress during pregnancy are more likely to have psychological issues in childhood or later life.

Sex differences in brain development may also help explain why girls and boys often develop different mental health problems. However, the researchers cautioned that the study did not analyze emotional and cognitive development in children.

This shows a pregnant woman on a beach
Importantly, the effects of IPV exposure may differ by the baby’s sex. Image is in the public domain

Lead researcher, Dr. Lucy Hiscox from the Department of Psychology at Bath, explained, “Our findings are a call to act on the three Rs of domestic violence awareness: recognize, respond, and refer. Preventing or quickly acting to help women escape domestic violence may be an effective way of supporting healthy brain development in children.”

While previous studies have looked at the impact of maternal stress in pregnancy and its impacts on children’s brain development, this is the first to examine domestic abuse. The children involved in this study are now aged 8-9 years and follow-up research is testing whether the differences in brain structure seen at 3 weeks old persist, or are altered, as they age.

For this study, the team from Bath worked with researchers at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to analyze data from a major South African cohort study, the Drakenstein Child Health Study (DCHS), led by South African pediatrician Professor Heather Zar. The DCHS has been tracking 1,143 children since birth with data collection ongoing.

Co-author, Professor Kirsty Donald, a pediatric neurologist and Head of the Division of Developmental Pediatrics at UCT added, “Strategies that help identify and support pregnant mums for multiple potential risks to their unborn babies will require an integrated health system approach and should be considered a public health priority.”

About this IPV and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Andy Dunne
Source: University of Bath
Contact: Andy Dunne – University of Bath
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Antenatal maternal intimate partner violence exposure is associated with sex-specific alterations in brain structure among young infants: Evidence from a South African birth cohort” by Lucy V. Hiscox et al. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience


Antenatal maternal intimate partner violence exposure is associated with sex-specific alterations in brain structure among young infants: Evidence from a South African birth cohort

Maternal psychological distress during pregnancy has been linked to adverse outcomes in children with evidence of sex-specific effects on brain development.

Here, we investigated whether in utero exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV), a particularly severe maternal stressor, is associated with brain structure in young infants from a South African birth cohort.

Exposure to IPV during pregnancy was measured in 143 mothers at 28–32 weeks’ gestation and infants underwent structural and diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (mean age 3 weeks).

Subcortical volumetric estimates were compared between IPV-exposed (n = 63; 52% female) and unexposed infants (n = 80; 48% female), with white matter microstructure also examined in a subsample (IPV-exposed, n = 28, 54% female; unexposed infants, n = 42, 40% female).

In confound adjusted analyses, maternal IPV exposure was associated with sexually dimorphic effects in brain volumes: IPV exposure predicted a larger caudate nucleus among males but not females, and smaller amygdala among females but not males. Diffusivity alterations within white matter tracts of interest were evident in males, but not females exposed to IPV.

Results were robust to the removal of mother-infant pairs with pregnancy complications.

Further research is required to understand how these early alterations are linked to the sex-bias in neuropsychiatric outcomes later observed in IPV-exposed children.

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