March 20, 2023

Gut feeling: Connecting mom’s mental health to baby’s brain development 

Student researcher finds marked differences in the gut bacteria of babies whose moms were depressed during the pregnancy period

Carmen Tessier Photo: Supplied

Moms struggling with stress or anxiety during the pregnancy period aren’t only contending with “baby blues”. New research has found that mom’s mental state, both before and after birth, can impact the development of the child’s brain.

Carmen Tessier’s graduate studies research has connected the seemingly disparate factors of maternal distress, gut bacteria and duration of breastfeeding to bring new understanding to what’s known about child neurodevelopment.

“It added another layer,” she says about the findings. “What we found was that for women who breastfed for a shorter duration, that impacted the infant’s microbiome and subsequently the infant’s brain.”

Tessier’s research was part of her master’s degree in medical sciences, supervised by Anita Kozyrskyj, a Department of Pediatrics professor and investigator with the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) cohort. Tessier had taken a microbiology course during her science degree in psychology and became fascinated by the connections between bacteria and the health of women and children.

“I had mentioned to Dr. Kozyrskyj that I was interested in mental health, stress and brain development. And she said, ‘I have this perfect project, pairing your psychology education with our data,’” Tessier recalls. “I remember leaving this conversation feeling so excited. I knew this was the project for me.” 

The project allowed her to hone her analytic skills by working with the vast CHILD database while exploring new pathways between brain development and the emerging field of gut bacteria. In fact, her study was one of the first in this area to use a longitudinal human model, instead of an animal model.

Using the records of about 650 infants in the CHILD database, Tessier analyzed reports on prenatal depression, feeding methods, infant fecal samples and toddler neurodevelopment scores.

The results confirmed earlier findings that moms who were distressed during the pre- or postnatal period stopped breastfeeding earlier. 

But she also discovered that those infants had significantly higher levels of C. difficile bacteria in their guts. A few years later, those children scored lower on cognitive and language tests.

Tessier notes that C. difficile has long been considered a harmless bacterium in infants. “But what I found is that it really isn’t,” she says. “It was only when it was being looked at over time that we were able to see this outcome.”

Tessier is now a research data analyst for the Alberta government, where she works with statistics from a wide variety of sources and topics — health, environment, public opinion research and more. Before the studentship, “I had no idea that research was even a career at all,” she laughs.

Through the project, Tessier learned how to speak about research findings to audiences ranging from academics to students at the high school that she attended.

Most of all, though, she’s thrilled that her work conclusively points to the importance of supporting moms to be happier — and, by extension, helping their babies to be healthier. 

“We can support women through pregnancy and breastfeeding periods to help overcome early life stress,” she says. “And bring more awareness of the importance of women’s health and women’s mental health and breastfeeding — and how that has an impact on children’s trajectories.”

Carmen Tessier was supervised by Anita Kozyrskyj in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. 

Her research is funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

Funding partners for the CHILD Cohort Study include the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.