In the fight to save babies who are born prematurely, doctors often give drugs called glucocorticoids to women in preterm labor. This is meant to promote the babies’ lung development.
And while this treatment has saved the lives of countless babies, there are some negative effects to the high exposure to glucocorticoids, according to the researchers behind the new study. They say excessive glucocorticoid levels may have effects on brain development, perhaps contributing to emotional problems later in life.
For the study, published in Biological Psychiatry, Elysia Davis, Ph.D., at the University of Denver and her colleagues focused on healthy children who were born full-term. This, they say, helped avoid the “confounding effects” of premature birth.
The researchers conducted brain imaging sessions on 54 children between the ages of 6 and 10. They also carefully assessed the children. The mothers then completed reports on their child’s behavior.
The researchers found that children who were exposed to glucocorticoids in utero showed significant cortical thinning. A thinner cortex also predicted more emotional problems, according to the scientists.
One particularly affected part of the brain, the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, was 8 percent to 9 percent thinner among children exposed to glucocorticoids, the researchers found.
They note that other studies have shown that this region of the brain is affected in individuals diagnosed with mood and anxiety disorders.
“Fetal exposure to a frequently administered stress hormone is associated with consequences for child brain development that persist for at least six to 10 years. These neurological changes are associated with increased risk for stress and emotional problems,” Davis said.
“Importantly, these findings were observed among healthy children born full term.”
Although the findings do not indicate that glucocorticoids “caused” these changes, the researchers said they did determine that the findings can’t be explained by any obvious differences between the groups. The two groups did not differ on weight or gestational age at birth, Apgar scores, maternal factors, or any other basic demographics.
The findings suggest that glucocorticoid administration may somehow alter the trajectory of brain development of exposed children, the researchers noted.
“This study provides evidence that prenatal exposure to stress hormones shapes the construction of the fetal nervous system with consequences for the developing brain that persist into the preadolescent period,” Davis concluded.
Source: Biological Psychiatry