Domestic abuse against pregnant women can affect how the baby’s brain develops, according to a new study published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.
A team of researchers from the University of Bath, UK, analysed brain scans of 143 infants whose mothers had been subject to violence during pregnancy. This includes both physical and emotional abuse, as well as sexual assault. The scans were done when the babies were only three weeks old, which means any changes likely started developing inside the womb.
The scans revealed how maternal exposure to violence during pregnancy can cause alterations in the brains of young infants identified shortly after birth. This was still evident even when the analysis considered alcohol use and smoking by the mothers, as well as pregnancy complications.
Curiously, the effects may be different for each gender. Girls have a smaller amygdala, which is involved in emotional and social development. In contrast, boys had a larger caudate nucleus, which controls movement, learning, memory, and reward. These changes may explain why children whose mothers experience high levels of stress and violence during pregnancy are more likely to develop psychological issues. However, this is only speculation, and the study did not analyse emotional and cognitive development in children.
“Our findings are a call to act on the three Rs of domestic violence awareness: recognise, respond, and refer. Preventing or quickly acting to help women escape domestic violence may be an effective way of supporting healthy brain development in children,” said lead researcher Dr. Lucy Hiscox from the Department of Psychology at Bath.
This is not the first time researchers have looked at the impact of stress in pregnancy and its impacts on the baby’s brain development, but it is the first study to look specifically at domestic abuse. The children scanned in this study are now 8-9 years old, and the team is conducting follow-up research to test whether the differences detected at three weeks old are still present.
“Strategies that help identify and support pregnant mums for multiple potential risks to their unborn babies will require an integrated health system approach and should be considered a public health priority,” concluded co-author Professor Kirsty Donald, a paediatric neurologist and Head of the Division of Developmental Paediatrics at UCT.
Hiscox L, Fairchild G, Donald K et al (2023) Antenatal maternal intimate partner violence exposure is associated with sex-specific alterations in brain structure among young infants: Evidence from a South African birth cohort. Development Cognitive Neuroscience, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2023.101210