The impact of stress on maternal gastrointestinal permeability during pregnancy: Implications for maternal immunology and infant neurodevelopment

Pregnancy can be a stressful time during which many expectant mothers experience understandable worries and concerns. Unusually high levels of prenatal maternal stress are associated with a number of behavioural and cognitive problems for the child in later life. Normal development of the central nervous system is also at risk during the early life period. It is not well understood how stressful events during these periods shape neurodevelopment. Stress has a number of biological effects which may explain why high levels of emotional strain during pregnancy impact on neurodevelopment of the infant. Recently, it has been suggested that one of these effects is to make the gut "leaky", causing a prolonged and undesirable low-level activation of the mother's immune system as the normally contained bacterial components of the gut enter circulation. This elevated immune activity can alter the availability of tryptophan, an essential amino acid and building block for many important molecules including serotonin, a hormone which affects brain development. In this study we will investigate the hypothesis that high levels of maternal stress affect prenatal brain development by triggering excessive tryptophan metabolism once the gut becomes "leaky" and affects postnatal neurodevelopment by inducing a similar activation of the immune system in the infant. We aim to develop a biological marker indicating vulnerability to prenatal maternal stress and adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes which will be confirmed using brain imaging techniques and assessing the infant behaviour.

The outcomes of this study will be important to help understand the biological link between prenatal maternal stress and neurodevelopment. This will allow us to identify at risk women who would benefit from stress reduction techniques or approaches aimed at fixing the leaky gut which causes these problems.  Successful completion of this study thus has the potential for improved pregnancy outcomes and large mental health benefits.

Award Date
30 June 2017
Award Value
Principal Investigator
Professor Timothy Dinan
Host Institution
University College Cork
Investigator Led Projects