Examining longitudinal associations between prenatal exposure to infections and child brain morphology

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Maternal infection during pregnancy has been identified as a prenatal risk factor for the later development of psychopathology in exposed offspring. Neuroimaging data collected during childhood has suggested a link between prenatal exposure to maternal infection and child brain structure and function, potentially offering a neurobiological explanation for the emergence of psychopathology. Additionally, preclinical studies utilizing repeated measures of neuroimaging data suggest that effects of prenatal maternal infection on the offspring's brain may normalize over time (i.e., catch-up growth). However, it remains unclear whether exposure to prenatal maternal infection in humans is related to long-term differential neurodevelopmental trajectories. Hence, this study aimed to investigate the association between prenatal exposure to infections on child brain development over time using repeated measures MRI data.

We leveraged data from a population-based cohort, Generation R, in which we examined prospectively assessed self-reported infections at each trimester of pregnancy (N = 2,155). We further used three neuroimaging assessments (at mean ages 8, 10 and 14) to obtain cortical and subcortical measures of the offspring's brain morphology with MRI. Hereafter, we applied linear mixed-effects models, adjusting for several confounding factors, to estimate the association of prenatal maternal infection with child brain development over time.

We found that prenatal exposure to infection in the third trimester was associated with a slower decrease in volumes of the pars orbitalis, rostral anterior cingulate and superior frontal gyrus, and a faster increase in the middle temporal gyrus. In the temporal pole we observed a divergent pattern, specifically showing an increase in volume in offspring exposed to more infections compared to a decrease in volume in offspring exposed to fewer infections. We further observed associations in other frontal and temporal lobe structures after exposure to infections in any trimester, though these did not survive multiple testing correction.

Our results suggest that prenatal exposure to infections in the third trimester may be associated with slower age-related growth in the regions: pars orbitalis, rostral anterior cingulate and superior frontal gyrus, and faster age-related growth in the middle temporal gyrus across childhood, suggesting a potential sensitive period. Our results might be interpreted as an extension of longitudinal findings from preclinical studies, indicating that children exposed to prenatal infections could exhibit catch-up growth. However, given the lack of differences in brain volume between various infection groups at baseline, there may instead be either a longitudinal deviation or a subtle temporal deviation. Subsequent well-powered studies that extend into the period of full brain development (∼25 years) are needed to confirm whether the observed phenomenon is indeed catch-up growth, a longitudinal deviation, or a subtle temporal deviation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)965-977
Number of pages13
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
Early online date13 May 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 May 2024

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