Link found between pandemic stress and altered placentas in pregnant women: Study
The study’s findings shed light on the often-overlooked connection between the mental well-being of pregnant women and the health of their placenta
Disruptions in placental function have been shown to affect the development of the infant’s brain, as well as their neurobehavior and temperament (iStock)
Researchers at the Developing Brain Institute at Children’s National Hospital in the US have discovered that the heightened stress experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the structure, texture, and other characteristics of the placenta.
The placenta, a vital organ that forms during pregnancy to provide nourishment and protection to babies, has been found to be affected by elevated stress levels.
Researchers said the study’s findings shed light on the often-overlooked connection between the mental well-being of pregnant women and the health of their placenta.
Furthermore, the researchers said that they are currently investigating the long-term neurodevelopmental effects on the children of these pregnant women.
The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Participants for the study were enlisted from Children’s National Hospital as part of a clinical trial specifically designed to address the elevated stress levels experienced by pregnant women during the pandemic.
The study included 165 women who were already pregnant before March 2020 and an additional 63 women who became pregnant during the pandemic.
The pregnant women who were enrolled during the pandemic were not intentionally exposed to Covid-19.
However, collectively, they obtained notably higher scores on stress and depression questionnaires, indicating elevated levels of psychological distress compared to the pregnant women who were already pregnant before the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, mothers were exposed to a litany of negative stressors including social distancing, fear of dying, financial insecurity and more,” said Catherine Limperopoulos, chief and director of the Developing Brain Institute, which led the research.
By comparing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data from women who were pregnant before March 2020 and those who became pregnant during the pandemic, scientists identified significant differences in placental growth and development in the latter group. These changes in placental development were also linked to the birth weight of the infants at delivery.
Importantly, the researchers discovered a connection between these changes and maternal stress and depression symptoms. The findings imply that disruptions in placental development during pregnancy may impact the placenta’s ability to adequately support fetal health and well-being.
“We now know that this vital organ was changed for many mothers, and it’s essential that we continue to investigate the impact this may have had on children who were born during this global public health crisis,” said Limperopoulos.
Previous research has demonstrated that the placenta can adapt to adverse changes in the maternal environment and mental health status. Disruptions in placental function have been shown to affect the development of the infant’s brain, as well as their neurobehavior and temperament.
Limperopoulos, emphasised the importance of identifying maternal stress early on as a modifiable risk factor. She highlighted that psychotherapy, social support, and personalised evidence-based interventions can effectively address maternal stress.
Furthermore, Limperopoulos expressed the team’s anticipation for further research in this field, aiming to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind these biological changes.
She also emphasised the need to address the specific needs of mothers and children who experience stressful events such as pandemics or natural disasters.