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College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Psychology


The prenatal period represents a critical time for brain growth and development. These rapid neurological advances render the fetus susceptible to various influences with life-long implications for mental health. Maternal distress signals are a dominant early life influence, contributing to birth outcomes and risk for offspring psychopathology. This prospective longitudinal study evaluated the association between prenatal maternal distress and infant white matter microstructure. Participants included a racially and socioeconomically diverse sample of 85 mother–infant dyads. Prenatal distress was assessed at 17 and 29 weeks’ gestational age (GA). Infant structural data were collected via diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) at 42–45 weeks’ postconceptional age. Findings demonstrated that higher prenatal maternal distress at 29 weeks’ GA was associated with increased fractional anisotropy, b = .283, t(64) = 2.319, p = .024, and with increased axial diffusivity, b = .254, t(64) = 2.067, p = .043, within the right anterior cingulate white matter tract. No other significant associations were found with prenatal distress exposure and tract fractional anisotropy or axial diffusivity at 29 weeks’ GA, or earlier in gestation.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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This article was originally published by Cambridge University Press as:

Demers, C. H., Bagonis, M. M., Al-Ali, K., Garcia, S. E., Styner, M. A.,...,Davis, E. P. (2021). Exposure to prenatal maternal distress and infant white matter neurodevelopment. Development and Psychopathology 33(Special Issue 5), 1526-1538.

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