Prenatal Exposures and the Developing Brain

By Monika WnukMarch 6, 2017

Susceptibility to certain diseases and developmental problems is shaped in part by environmental exposures that occur in utero. Yet experts still know little about the underlying mechanisms that drive this process.

Laurie Wakschlag, medical social sciences vice chair for scientific and faculty development, is investigating how prenatal exposure to stress or carcinogens can increase a child’s likelihood of experiencing early neurodevelopmental problems or disease later in life. Wakschlag, a clinical and developmental psychologist, and her colleagues at Northwestern’s Innovations in Developmental Sciences collective aim to minimize the effects of adverse exposures and to optimize health and longevity.

“We want to move from calculating correlation to testing causation,” says Wakschlag. “Our ultimate goal is to translate discovery into interventions that can prevent many chronic diseases.”

Wakschlag has also researched the effects of adverse prenatal environments on behavior. Her group found, for example, that a pregnant woman’s smoking increased antisocial behavior in her adolescent offspring with specific genetic variations, which influenced vulnerability to detrimental environmental effects. More recently, she joined forces with developmental methodologists,
neuroscientists, and developmental prevention experts from the School of Communication to monitor atypical patterns of infant brain growth and to identify markers of abnormal irritability in infants.

In several studies, Wakschlag and her collaborators have focused on the effects of prenatal exposure to stress. Among their discoveries are stress-induced abnormalities in the part of a child’s brain associated with self-control. Through a partnership with the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Wakschlag will work with experts from maternal fetal medicine, prevention, and health information and use maternal health–sensing technology to deliver personalized intervention to pregnant mothers experiencing stress. The team will follow infants throughout their first year of life to track the neurodevelopmental effects of the intervention.

“We designed this study using cutting-edge tools from multiple disciplines with the goal of improving the prenatal environment and promoting healthy neurodevelopment even before children are born,” says Wakschlag. “If successful, we will work with clinical and population health experts to translate our findings into scalable applications.”