Inflammation During Pregnancy – How Does It Affect Fetal Brain Development?

Inflammation During Pregnancy – How Does It Affect Fetal Brain Development?

A study published in Nature Neuroscience indicates inflammation during pregnancy can affect the way in which a baby’s brain develops.

It can also have long term effects as children grow.

This new research is adding to the growing body of evidence showing a link between maternal inflammation during pregnancy and brain development disorders.

Inflammation During Pregnancy – How Does It Affect Fetal Brain Development?

Disorders include mental illness and brain development problems commonly associated with impaired impulse control in children.

What Is Inflammation?

You have probably heard of inflammation, but you might not know exactly what it means.

When the immune system recognises pathogens, such as viruses, damaged cells or even irritants, it goes into action. Inflammation is a defence mechanism that removes the cause of harm and begins the healing process.

When we experience an infection or injury, the immune system triggers several physical reactions, resulting in inflammation:

  • Acute inflammation is generally caused by injury or pathogens. It occurs rapidly and becomes severe very quickly. The symptoms of acute inflammation usually last for only a few days and then are resolved.
  • Chronic inflammation is caused by pathogens the body can’t get rid of, such as certain viruses or foreign bodies, autoimmune disorders, or exposure to irritants over time. It is slow to develop and can last for months or years.

What Did The Study Find?

The team of researchers collected blood samples from 84 pregnant women at each pregnancy trimester. They measured levels of an inflammatory protein called interleukin-6 (IL-6). This is a marker known to play a role in fetal brain development. Moderate levels of IL-6 are necessary for normal development during pregnancy, but high levels indicate an inflammatory response.

Four weeks after birth, each baby’s brain activity at rest was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging. This determined the pattern of the baby’s brain network organisation.

At age 2, the children were tested for working memory performance, which is a fundamental skill children need in order to learn and is often compromised in learning and mental health disorders

The results of the study showed higher levels of the inflammatory marker IL-6 during pregnancy were more likely to result in poorer working memory capacity in the child.

The researchers also developed a model which can predict a mother’s inflammatory response during pregnancy based on her newborn’s brain functioning.

The model uses artificial intelligence and is based on the biomarkers identified in the study and applied to other mother-baby pairs not involved in the initial research.

This allows scientists to predict a child’s future working memory, based on a mother’s levels of IL-6 during pregnancy.

What Does This Mean For Pregnant Women?

Inflammation during pregnancy is a unique health risk, as it affects the mother’s health and also that of the developing baby.

Over recent years, a great deal of research has examined the effects of maternal inflammation during pregnancy on fetal development.

This new study and model might not be able to reduce high levels of IL-6 during pregnancy, but it can be used to identify those mothers and babies who could benefit from early intervention after birth. This knowledge is particularly useful for families with a genetic disposition to developmental disorders such as autism.

Even so, prevention is better than cure. What can women do to lower their chances of chronic inflammation occurring during pregnancy?

#1: Diet

There is a great deal of conflicting information about which diet is best for good health. A number of foods tend to increase inflammation in the body and, you guessed it, they are the things we all like to eat and are found in many of our favourite foods:

  • Sugar and high fructose corn syrup
  • Artificial trans fatty acids or partially hydrogenated oils
  • Vegetable and seed oils, except virgin olive oil and coconut oil
  • Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread
  • Processed meats

It’s best to replace these foods with those more typical of a Mediterranean diet, including plenty of fish, fresh vegetables and healthy fats, and moderate amounts of nuts and protein.

Consuming fish during pregnancy is often a concern, because of the levels of mercury present in many oily fish species. However, fish is also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which protect against inflammation. If you can’t eat fish, make sure you take a good quality fish oil supplement.

#2: Exercise

We all know exercise is good for us. It promotes the release of feel good hormones called endorphins, increases health, and is also a great way to reduce inflammation in the body.

When you exercise, your fat and muscle tissues release bursts of cytokines – proteins that send signals to the immune system. When they are released into your bloodstream they can reduce inflammation.

  • Research has shown just 20 minutes of moderate exercise will stimulate your immune system, and produce an anti-inflammatory response on the cellular level.
  • Moderate exercise includes things like walking, swimming and stationary cycling – all achievable while pregnant.

#3: Stress

The modern world is a very stressful and busy one. Most people live with varying levels of stress at any given time.

While some stressors will always be present, ongoing chronic stress raises cortisol levels. Cortisol is known to suppress the immune system and can change or inhibit the body’s immune response to infections.

Our bodies and brains aren’t designed to cope with ongoing onslaughts of cortisol. When too much is produced, it results in elevated levels of inflammation over time. High levels of cortisol are also known to have a negative impact on the development of the fetal brain.

  • Obviously you can’t always avoid stress, but you can try to meet it head on by using coping mechanisms. This means you can move on from the stressful experience rather than carry it around.
  • Meditation, journalling or counselling are important tools you can use to help reduce the stresses in your life.

#4: Sleep

We all know the feeling of waking up after a poor night’s sleep. We feel foggy, cranky, and in need of caffeine to get us through the day. Poor sleep contributes to poor diet (we’re more likely to hit the sugary foods to keep ourselves going) and leads to lack of exercise (because we’re too tired to go for a walk).

Long term sleep deprivation has the power to do more than make us tired and irritable. It causes physical changes in our bodies and brains which contribute to many other health problems.

A review of studies involving more than 50,000 people found one of the side effects of too much or too little sleep: there were increased levels of inflammation, and particularly increased levels of the inflammatory marker IL-6.

Although pregnancy can make you feel very tired, getting enough sleep can sometimes be a challenge, particularly when you get up a few times a night to visit the bathroom, thanks to your bladder being squished.

  • Try to avoid drinking too much during the evening, to reduce your nightly loo visits, but drink plenty during the day.
  • Stay away from tea and coffee in the afternoon, as they are diuretics and can increase the need to urinate.
  • When you’re on the loo, lean forward or rock gently to encourage your bladder to empty completely.

#5: Toxins

Smoking triggers inflammation in the body and increases the risk of other diseases. It also harms your unborn baby. As well as tobacco, other toxins such as mercury and aluminum, pesticides, BPH plastics, PFOA in non-stick cookware can also trigger pro inflammatory gene expression, which alters normal immune response.

  • It can be very difficult to avoid certain environmental toxins, but reducing the amount you are exposed to is a good start.
  • Check all pharmaceutical products for mercury or aluminum. Mercury can be present in nasal sprays, eye drops, antibiotics and vaccines. While the amounts are small, exposure can mount up causing an inflammatory response.

The influenza virus also causes an immune response in the mother, with the potential for damaging inflammatory effects on the fetus. It is often recommended that pregnant women have the influenza vaccine to prevent any harm coming to their babies.

However, the influenza vaccine induces the exact same immune response as the influenza infection does. Research has shown a live virus isn’t necessary for inflammatory damage to occur; the trigger is the maternal immune response to the pathogen, not the pathogen itself.

So although you might only have a small chance of contracting the flu, having the vaccine guarantees your baby will be exposed to the maternal immune response to the flu virus.

This is also true for the other vaccines routinely recommended during pregnancy to protect against pertussis, or whooping cough.

The decision to have a vaccine or not is a personal one, and should be made after you have all the information available regarding safety, risks and benefits.

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Sam McCulloch enjoyed talking so much about birth she decided to become a birth educator and doula, supporting parents in making informed choices about their birth experience. In her spare time she writes novels. She is mother to three beautiful little humans.

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