Anxiety during pregnancy may affect the neural responses underlying caregiving

Scientists are beginning to understand the neural processing underlying anxiety during pregnancy.

In a study of 43 women in their third trimester, researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to investigate the link between self-reported anxiety and the neural processing of infant faces during pregnancy. An EEG is used to record electrical activity in the brain.

The researchers found that higher levels of anxiety were associated with greater attention-related brain activity. This increase in brain activity was elicited by neutral infant faces, but not distressed infant faces or adult faces. In other words, the researchers observed greater attentional processing in the brains of anxious women who were shown images of infants with ambiguous facial expressions.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biological Psychology in April.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Helena J.V. Rutherford of the Yale Child Study Center at Yale University. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Rutherford: Research, including our own, has found that women undergo significant changes at hormonal, neurobiological, and psychological levels when they become parents. To better understand these changes, our experiments show these women photographs of infant faces as a way to measure the neural mechanisms that underlie caregiving. While we can also learn about these changes from observing mothers and their infants interacting, there are a host of brain responses that occur before we can see maternal behavior. Understanding these neural responses may help shed light on situations where mothers may struggle caring for their child. During the postpartum period, our research has previously found that variations in anxiety, depression, and substance use can affect these neural responses in recent parents, so we wanted to see whether these same associations occurred as early as pregnancy. We were particularly interested in anxiety, given that most women experience some level of anxiety during their pregnancy.

What should the average person take away from your study?

We hope readers take away from the study that anxiety may affect the neural responses underlying caregiving even before the baby has arrived – suggesting that interventions designed to support maternal well-being should begin during pregnancy.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

As with all research studies, there are caveats and questions we need to address to more fully understand how anxiety affects caregiving. Our sample participated in their third trimester of pregnancy, and we do not know if these associations exist prior to conception, occur in women without children, as well as whether males (fathers and non-fathers) evidence comparable associations between anxiety levels and this neural response to infant faces. It is also important to establish the functional significance of these findings for caregiving postpartum; specifically, do these associations between anxiety and neural responses to infant faces predict how mothers engage and respond to their child behaviorally in the future? We are currently bringing this prenatal sample of women back to the lab at 3 months and 6 months postpartum to examine this question.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We are excited to be able to use different tools to understand caregiving at multiple levels. As this work continues, we hope to translate these findings into interventions to help new mothers.

The study, “Anxiety and neural responses to infant and adult faces during pregnancy“, was also co-authored by Simon P. Byrne, Grace M. Austin, Jonathan D. Lee, Michael J. Crowley, and Linda C. Mayes.