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Pregnant women abuse risks babies’ brain development: SA cohort study

Abuse during pregnancy has been linked to alterations in brain structure in infants, according to a local study, with researchers saying the indications were evident even when they took into account maternal alcohol use and smoking throughout pregnancy as well as pregnancy complications.

Researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of Bath analysed brain scans of 143 South African infants whose mothers had been victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), including emotional, physical, sexual abuse or assault, during pregnancy.

Most of the MRI scans were taken when infants were about three-weeks-old, suggesting any changes to the brain are likely to have developed inside the womb, reports TimesLIVE.

The study, published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience journal, also showed that the effects of IPV exposure might differ by the baby’s sex. For girls, their mother’s exposure to IPV during pregnancy was linked to a smaller amygdala. For boys, IPV exposure was instead associated with a larger caudate nucleus, an area of the brain involved in multiple functions including the execution of movement, learning, memory, reward and motivation.

The researchers said these early changes to brain structures could explain why children whose mothers experience high levels of stress during pregnancy were more likely to have psychological issues in childhood or later life.

While previous studies have looked at the impact of maternal stress in pregnancy and its impact on children’s mental development, this is the first research to examine domestic abuse.

Sex differences in brain development may also help explain why girls and boys often develop different mental health problems. Both structures are crucial for emotion regulation and cognitive control.

The study team cautioned that one of the limitations of the research was that it did not analyse emotional and cognitive development in children.

Lead researcher Dr Lucy Hiscox, from the department of psychology at the University of Bath, said the findings were 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.”

Co-author Professor Kirsty Donald, a paediatric neurologist and head of the division of developmental paediatrics at UCT, said: “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.”

The children involved in this study are now aged between eight and nine, and follow-up research is testing whether the differences in brain structure seen at three weeks of age persist, or alter, as they age.

Study details

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

Lucy Hiscox, Graeme Fairchild, Kirsten Donald, Nynke Groenewold, Nastassja Koen, Annerine Roos, Katherine Narr, Marina Lawrence, Nadia Hoffman, Catherine Wedderburn, Whitney Barnett, Heather Zar, Dan Stein, Sarah Halligan.

Published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Volume 60, April 2023

Maternal psychological distress during pregnancy has been linked to adverse outcomes in children with evidence of sex-specific effects on brain development. Here, we investigated whether in utero exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV), a particularly severe maternal stressor, is associated with brain structure in young infants from a South African birth cohort. Exposure to IPV during pregnancy was measured in 143 mothers at 28–32 weeks’ gestation and infants underwent structural and diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (mean age 3 weeks). Subcortical volumetric estimates were compared between IPV-exposed (n = 63; 52% female) and unexposed infants (n = 80; 48% female), with white matter microstructure also examined in a subsample (IPV-exposed, n = 28, 54% female; unexposed infants, n = 42, 40% female). In confound adjusted analyses, maternal IPV exposure was associated with sexually dimorphic effects in brain volumes: IPV exposure predicted a larger caudate nucleus among males but not females, and smaller amygdala among females but not males. Diffusivity alterations within white matter tracts of interest were evident in males, but not females exposed to IPV. Results were robust to the removal of mother-infant pairs with pregnancy complications. Further research is required to understand how these early alterations are linked to the sex-bias in neuropsychiatric outcomes later observed in IPV-exposed children.


Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience article – Antenatal maternal intimate partner violence exposure is associated with sex-specific alterations in brain structure among young infants (Creative Commons Licence)


TimesLIVE article – Abuse of pregnant women endangers unborn babies’ brain development: study (Restricted access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Violence during pregnancy a way of life for many SA women


16 Days of Activism: SASOG calls health care professionals to action


SASOG introduces guidelines for routine screening for GBV


Research explores lifestyle effects – preconception – on future children


Low level alcohol use during pregnancy can impact on child brain development





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