Research Reveals Possible Physical and Mental Consequences of Stress During Pregnancy

Research at Ohio State University finds that heightened levels of stress during pregnancy may prevent the growth of brain cells that can benefit the cognitive functioning of new mothers.

Conducting research on rats, the research team lead by Benedetta Leuner, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State, found that pregnant rats showed an increase in brain cell connections in regions of the brain associated with learning, memory, and mood. Specifically the research team looked at the growth of dendritic spines, hair-like growths on brain cells that aid in the exchange of information between neurons. Pregnant women typically show a 20 percent increase of these dendritic spines which enable women to improve their cognitive functioning in areas of behavioral flexibility or multitasking, skills which can be extremely useful to a new mother.

But in the experiment, rats who were exposed to stressful events twice each day did not show similar growth in dendritic spines as the rats who were not subjected to stress. After their babies were born, the rats who had been stressed showed less contact with their babies than did the unstressed rats. Dr. Leuner stated that the rat mothers who were stressed during pregnancy “mimic some of the symptoms that are seen in women with postpartum depression.”

Dr. Leuner has taught at Ohio State since 2011. She previously was conducting postdoctoral research at Princeton University. Dr. Leuner is a graduate of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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