Prenatal stress from natural disasters may exacerbate the effect of maternal depression on children’s fight-or-flight response

A new study, which appears in Biological Psychology, has found that the negative impact of prenatal maternal depression on children was magnified when pregnant women lived through Superstorm Sandy.

The findings provide new information about the relationship between prenatal maternal mental health and offspring development.

“Natural disasters, especially historically intense ones, are becoming more and more frequent as the climate changes. When Superstorm Sandy struck the area in which I live in October of 2012, I was horrified by the physical and psychological damage it brought to my community,” said study author Jessica Buthmann, a PhD candidate at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center and an adjunct instructor of psychology at CUNY Queens College.

“Researchers are investigating the psychological impact of these events on the populations they affect. For this study we were also interested in how these effects may be passed down to the next generation, and whether maternal mental health increases susceptibility,” added Buthmann, who is also a member of Yoko Nomura’s Stress in Pregnancy Lab.

Buthmann and her colleagues examined the electrodermal activity of 198 young children. At the time of the study, the children were about 40 months old on average and about half of the children had mothers had been exposed to Superstorm Sandy while pregnant.

“We studied the electrodermal activity (also known as galvanic skin response) in children because it is a proxy measure of the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system, which can drive emotional responses to different stimuli and is known to be either under- or over- reactive in various psychological disorders,” she explained.

“The stress of Superstorm Sandy would activate this system in the expecting mothers, especially if they had existing mental health issues. We wanted to know if any effects would be passed onto their developing children, thereby altering their own emotional reactivity.”

In the study, the children watched a relaxing scene depicting panda bears on a computer screen while the researchers monitored their galvanic skin response, which measures the electrical differences in skin in response to pain or stress. During the relaxing scene, the children were startled with a loud noise.

Prenatal exposure to Superstorm Sandy was not linked to child electrodermal reactivity.

However, the researchers found that prenatal maternal depression exposure was linked to lower electrodermal reactivity. Reactivity was even lower for children exposed to both prenatal maternal depression and Superstorm Sandy in utero, suggesting that stress from the natural disasters may have exacerbate the impact of prenatal maternal depression.

“We found that children of mothers who were pregnant during Superstorm Sandy and also experienced symptoms of depression were less electrodermally reactive to startling stimuli, indicating a poor fight-or-flight response. Their responses were significantly lower than children exposed to Superstorm Sandy alone and children exposed to maternal depression alone,” Buthmann told PsyPost.

“These children may be at risk for psychological disorders associated with low fight-or-flight responses, such as depression, oppositional-defiant disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”

“It is our hope that findings like these will increase awareness of the need for special care to be put in place for expecting mothers leading up to (when possible) and following natural disasters. Proper preparation and assistance in the aftermath of a disaster, including mental health services, may be critical for setting their children on the path toward optimal health,” Buthmann said.

The results are in line with another study conducted by Buthmann and her colleagues. In that study, which was published in Infant Mental Health Journal, the researchers found that infants born to women with prenatal depression were more likely to experience greater distress, greater fear, lower smiling and laughter, lower high- and low-pleasure seeking, lower soothability, slower falling reactivity, lower cuddliness, and greater sadness at six months of age.

The effects were amplified when women were pregnant during Superstorm Sandy.

“As with many studies involving human subjects, this study was correlational in nature, meaning we cannot say for certain that the maternal mental health factors caused the low fight-or-flight response in these children. Studying a natural disaster that affected a large population at the same time strengthens our findings that maternal mental health during pregnancy impacts child development,” Buthmann said.

“Further, our research group is currently studying biological samples collected from these children (including placenta tissues and cord blood) to look for clues that may shed light on how and to what extent maternal stress and mental health may increase risk for future psychological disorders.”

“Experts continue to predict increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, and tornadoes are affecting communities at an alarming rate already. Unless and until real action is taken to slow this trend, future generations of children may be put at risk for the development of psychological impairment via exposure to these horrifying events,” Buthmann added.

The study, “The children of Superstorm Sandy: Maternal prenatal depression blunts offspring electrodermal activity“, was authored by J. Buthmann, J. Finik, G. Ventura, W. Zhang, A.D.
Shereen, Y. Nomura.