If a pregnant woman’s immune system is activated, it can affect her child’s brain development, new research suggests.
A number of triggers — infections, stress, illness, and allergies — can activate the immune system. This causes proteins to be released as part of an inflammatory response.
Previous research in animals has shown that some of these proteins can affect offspring. However, little has been known about this effect in humans.
They found that a child’s short- and long-term brain functioning might be influenced by their mother’s immune system activity during the third trimester of pregnancy.
The findings included changes in the fetal heart rate in the babies of pregnant women who showed signs of inflammation. Citing the link between fetal heart rate and the nervous system, the researchers said the heart rate changes indicate that maternal inflammation was beginning to have an effect even before birth.
In the first few weeks after birth, brain scans taken on the newborns revealed disruptions in the communication between various regions of the brain in children whose mothers had elevated proteins during pregnancy that signaled inflammation.
Then, when the babies were 14 months old, testing showed differences in motor skills, language development and behavior among the children of mothers whose immune systems had been activated by inflammation.
The findings “fill in a missing piece,” study leader Dr. Bradley Peterson said in a news release from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He’s director of the hospital’s Institute for the Developing Mind.