Domestic violence during pregnancy linked to structural brain changes in babies

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

Source: University of Bath

Domestic violence against women during pregnancy can potentially have a significant impact on the brain development of the unborn baby, according to a new study.

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

Brain MRIs were taken when infants were only 3 weeks old on average, so any changes seen are likely to have developed inside the womb.

Publication of their findings in the journal Developmental cognitive neurosciencethe research team reports that maternal exposure to IPV during pregnancy is associated with brain structural alterations in young infants identified soon after birth.

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

It is important to note that the effects of exposure to IPV may differ depending on the sex of the baby.

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

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

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

This shows a pregnant woman on a beach
It is important to note that the effects of exposure to IPV may differ depending on the sex of the baby. Image is in public domain

Lead researcher Dr Lucy Hiscox from Bath’s Department of Psychology explained: “Our findings are a call to action on the three Rs of domestic violence awareness: recognize, respond and refer. Preventing or acting early to help women escape domestic violence can be an effective way to support healthy brain development in children.

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

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

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

About this news about IPV and neurodevelopment research

Author: Andy Dunn
Source: University of Bath
Contact: Andy Dunne – University of Bath
Picture: Image is in public domain

Original research: Free access.
“Prenatal exposure to maternal intimate partner violence is associated with sex-specific alterations in brain structure in young infants: evidence from a South African birth cohort” by Lucy V. Hiscox et al. Developmental cognitive neuroscience

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Prenatal exposure to maternal intimate partner violence is associated with sex-specific alterations in brain structure in 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 gender-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.

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

Subcortical volumetric estimates were compared between people exposed to IPV (not = 63; 52% women) and unexposed infants (not = 80; 48% female), with white matter microstructure also examined in a subsample (exposed to IPV, not = 28.54% women; unexposed infants, not = 42, 40% women).

In confounding-adjusted analyses, maternal IPV exposure was associated with sex dimorphic effects in brain volumes: IPV exposure predicted larger caudate nucleus in males but not in females, and a smaller amygdala in women but not in men. Diffusivity alterations in the white matter pathways of interest were evident in men, but not in women exposed to IPV.

The results were robust to removing mother-child pairs with pregnancy complications.

Further research is needed to understand how these early alterations relate to sex bias in neuropsychiatric outcomes observed later in children exposed to IPV.

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