Background: Prenatal maternal depression has been associated with multiple problems in offspring involving affect, cognition, and neuroendocrine functioning. This suggests that prenatal depression influences neurodevelopment. However, the underlying neurodevelopmental mechanism remains unclear. We prospectively assessed whether maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy and at the child's age 3 years are related to white matter microstructure in 690 children. The association of paternal depressive symptoms with childhood white matter microstructure was assessed to evaluate genetic or familial confounding. Methods: Parental depressive symptoms were measured using the Brief Symptom Inventory. In children aged 6-9 years, we used diffusion tensor imaging to assess white matter microstructure characteristics including fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity (MD). Results: Exposure to maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy was associated with higher MD in the uncinate fasciculus and to lower FA and higher MD in the cingulum bundle. No associations of maternal depressive symptoms at the child's age of 3 years with white matter characteristics were observed. Paternal depressive symptoms also showed a trend toward significance for a lower FA in the cingulum bundle. Conclusions: Prenatal maternal depressive symptoms were associated with higher MD in the uncinate fasciculus and the cingulum bundle. These structures are part of the limbic system, which is involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. As paternal depressive symptoms were also related to lower FA in the cingulum, the observed effect may partly reflect a genetic predisposition and shared environmental family factors and to a lesser extent a specific intrauterine effect.

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Depression and Anxiety
Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology

El Marroun, H., Zou, R., Muetzel, R., Jaddoe, V., Verhulst, F., White, T., & Tiemeier, H. (2018). Prenatal exposure to maternal and paternal depressive symptoms and white matter microstructure in children. Depression and Anxiety. doi:10.1002/da.22722