Maternal depression during pregnancy alters infant subcortical and midbrain volumes

Vaheshta Sethna, Jasmine Siew, Maria Gudbrandsen, Inês Pote, Eileen Daly, Carmine Pariante, Declan G M Murphy, Michael C Craig, Grainne M McAlonan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Maternal depression in pregnancy increases the risk for adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes in the offspring. The reason for this is unknown, however, one plausible mechanism may include the impact of maternal antenatal depression on infant brain. Nevertheless, relatively few studies have examined the brain anatomy of infants born to clinically diagnosed mothers.

A legacy magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) dataset was used to compare regional brain volumes in 3-to-6-month-old infants born to women with a clinically confirmed diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD) during pregnancy (n = 31) and a reference sample of infants born to women without a current or past psychiatric diagnosis (n = 33). A method designed for analysis of low-resolution scans enabled examination of subcortical and midbrain regions previously found to be sensitive to the parent-child environment.

Compared with infants of non-depressed mothers, infants exposed to maternal antenatal depression had significantly larger subcortical grey matter volumes and smaller midbrain volumes. There was no association between gestational medication exposure and the infant regional brain volumes examined in our sample.

Our scanning approach did not allow for an examination of fine-grained structural differences, and without repeated measures of brain volume, it is unknown whether the direction of reported associations are dependent on developmental stage.

Maternal antenatal depression is associated with an alteration in infant brain anatomy in early postnatal life; and that this is not accounted for by medication exposure. However, our study cannot address whether anatomical differences impact on future outcomes of the offspring.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)163-170
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2021


  • Antenatal depression
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Infant brain
  • Midbrain
  • Subcortical region

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