Impact of prenatal stress on amygdala anatomy in young adulthood: Timing and location matter

Mareckova K, Marecek R, Andryskova L, Brazdil M, Nikolova YS.

Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2021 Aug 3:S2451-9022(21)00203-2. doi: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2021.07.009. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34358683.


23 Aug 2021

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Background: Exposure to maternal stress in utero has long-term implications for the developing brain and has been linked with a higher risk of depression. The amygdala, which develops during the early embryonic stage and is critical for emotion processing, might be particularly sensitive.

Methods: Using data from a neuroimaging follow-up of the ELSPAC prenatal birth cohort (n=129, 47% men, 23-24 years old), we studied the impact of prenatal stress during the first and second half of pregnancy on the volume of the amygdala and its nuclei in young adult offspring. We further evaluated the relationship between amygdala anatomy and offspring depressive symptomatology. Amygdala nuclei were parcellated using FreeSurfer's automated segmentation pipeline. Depressive symptoms were measured via self-report using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI).

Results: Exposure to stress during the first half of pregnancy was associated with smaller accessory basal (Cohen's f2=0.27, p(FDR)=0.03) and cortical (Cohen's f2=0.29, p(FDR)=0.03) nuclei volumes. This effect remained significant after correcting for sex, stress during the second half of pregnancy, as well as maternal age at birth, birth weight, maternal education, and offspring's age at MRI. These two nuclei showed a quadratic relationship with BDI scores in young adulthood, where both smaller and larger volume was associated with more depressive symptoms (Accessory basal nucleus: Adj R2=0.05. p(FDR)=0.015; Cortical nucleus: Adj R2=0.04, p(FDR)=0.015).

Conclusions: We conclude that exposure to stress during the first half of pregnancy might have long-term implications for amygdala anatomy, which may in turn predict the experience of depressive symptoms in young adulthood.

Keywords: amygdala nuclei; amygdala volume; depression; magnetic resonance imaging; prenatal stress.

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