New Study Finds That Discrimination Against the Mother Can Impact the Brains of Unborn Children

Experiences of discrimination and acculturation are known to have a detrimental effect on a person’s health. For pregnant women, these painful experiences can also affect the brain circuitry of their children, a new study from Yale and Columbia University finds. These effects, the researchers say, are separate from those caused by general stress and depression.

The researchers assessed the degree of discrimination, acculturation, and distress experienced by 165 people while pregnant using established questionnaires. The participants were 14 to 19 years old, mostly Hispanic, and lived in or near the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. The researchers then performed magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate brain connectivity in 38 of the participants’ infants after birth.

When the research team analyzed the MRI images of the infants’ brains, they found differences in the children whose parents reported experiencing discrimination while pregnant. The amygdala is an area of the brain associated with emotional processing and it’s very vulnerable to prenatal stress, said the researchers. When the researchers assessed connectivity between the amygdala and another region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with higher-order functioning, they found that children of people who experienced more discrimination while pregnant had weaker connectivity between the two brain regions.

The full study, “The Effects of Experience of Discrimination and Acculturation During Pregnancy on the Developing Offspring Brain,” was published on the website of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology. It may be accessed here.

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