Gender differences in brain in response to midlife stress linked to fetal stress exposures

April 18, 2021

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Gender differences in brain in response to midlife stress linked to fetal stress exposures

In terms of human science this is one of the most important studies of the week and is well worth perusing. The researchers found that men and women whose mothers experienced stressful events during pregnancy regulate stress differently in the brain 45 years later.

Previously we knew that a mother’s stress during pregnancy could result in a child born depressed or clinically anxious. But that was assumed to be temporary—though personally I have always doubted this.

The study participants were a unique sample of 40 men and 40 women followed from the womb into their mid-forties. Brain imaging studies showed that exposure during fetal development to inflammation-promoting natural substances called cytokines, produced by mothers under negative stress, results in sex-associated differences in how the adult brain responds to negative stressful situations more than 45 years after birth.

The findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

What the researchers say: “We know that there are developmental roots to major psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and we know that these roots begin in fetal development. We also know these disorders are associated with abnormalities in the brain circuitry that regulates stress—circuitry that is intimately tied to regulating our immune system,” said the lead author.

“Given that the stress circuitry consists of regions that develop differently in the male and female brain during particular periods of gestation, and they function differently across our lifespans, we hypothesized that dysregulation of this circuitry in prenatal development would have lasting differential impact on the male and female brains of people with these disorders. We were particularly interested in the role of the immune system, in which some abnormalities are shared across these disorders.”

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity by showing differences in blood flow within and between different areas of the brain. They found that exposure to pro-inflammatory cytokines in the womb was associated with gender differences in how areas of the brain are activated and communicate with one another under negative stressful conditions in midlife.

For example, they found that in both sexes, lower maternal levels of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNFα) a pro-inflammatory cytokine, were significantly associated with higher activity in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that, among other functions, coordinates brain activity that regulates the release of stress hormones, like cortisol.

In contrast, lower levels of TNFα were also associated with more active communication between the hypothalamus and the anterior cingulate in men only. The anterior cingulate is an area of the brain associated with impulse control and emotion.

In women only, higher prenatal exposure to interleukin-6, another inflammatory cytokine, was associated with higher levels of activity in the hippocampus, a brain region important for inhibitory control of arousal, as well as memory.

Lastly, they found that the ratio between TNFα and the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-10 was associated with gender-dependent effects on activity in the hypothalamus and its communication with the hippocampus, which provides inhibitory control of arousal in the hypothalamus under stress.

“Given that these psychiatric disorders are developing differently in the male and female brain, we should be thinking about gender-dependent targets for early therapeutic intervention and prevention,” said the researchers.

So, what? Previous studies have shown that maternal stress can lead to a number of physical illnesses later in the resulting child’s life due to a compromised immune system.

Also relevant are studies which have shown that a father’s stress (especially work stress) at the time of his son’s conception can lead to that child having a heart attack decades later.

On a slightly lighter note, an interesting, related study just published found that mothers who were subject to stress at the time of conception were twice as likely to have a girl as a boy. Why this should be is still a mystery.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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