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Study Links Inflammation in Pregnancy to Weaker Brain Networks in Babies

Researcher urges doctors to help women control inflammation during pregnancy; infant intervention may help strengthen brain networks
November 19, 2014


The early findings of an ongoing study add to the growing evidence linking maternal inflammation during pregnancy with disorders of brain development, including autism. The unpublished research was featured in a press conference titled “Detecting, Understanding and Preventing Neuroinflammation,” at Neuroscience 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Read more Autism Speaks coverage from Neuroscience 2014 here.

The investigators say their results emphasize the need to help pregnant women prevent and control inflammatory conditions including infection, high stress, obesity and immune disorders.

In the study, researchers followed 52 pregnant women and their newborns. They monitored levels of the inflammatory molecule interleukin-6 (IL-6) repeatedly during the women’s pregnancies. Shortly after birth, the babies underwent noninvasive brain scans (fMRI) while sleeping.

The brain scans showed that the newborns whose mothers had high IL-6 levels during pregnancy had weaker connections between brain regions than did the other infants. (See images above.)

Having a weaker brain network at birth does not mean that these babies will develop autism or any other developmental disorder. However, previous research has found this type of weak brain connectivity in individuals with such disorders.

“We know that brain development involves an interaction between genes and the environment,” says study leader Claudia Buss, of Charitée University of Medicine, in Berlin. “Increasingly we’re seeing that the environment in the womb is among the most important in influencing lifelong health.”

“Our findings definitely tell us we should pay attention to supporting mothers during pregnancy,” Dr. Buss adds. “Obstetricians should ask about and address potential causes of inflammation.” In particular, Dr. Buss called on doctors to help foster social support, nutrition and physical care during pregnancy and to prevent or control inflammatory conditions such as infection, obesity and auto-immune conditions.

“We’re not yet at a place where we can or should do anything pharmacologically to reduce IL-6 during pregnancy because moderate levels of IL-6 are necessary for normal development,” she says. “But by detecting high levels of IL-6 in a woman, we may be able to identify pregnant mothers and infants who would benefit from intervention.” Early intervention behavioral therapies might be particularly beneficial for infants born into families already affected by a developmental disorder such as autism. Autism rates are much higher among the younger siblings of children already diagnosed with the disorder.

Dr. Buss and her colleagues will be following the development of the babies in their study as they progress through childhood.

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