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Maternal psychopathology during pregnancy is associated with negative outcomes in offspring. Increased placental transfer of maternal cortisol may contribute to mediate this association. Hair cortisol concentrations (HCCs) appear to be a good biomarker of long-term prenatal stress exposure. Little is known about the associations between severe maternal psychopathology and perinatal infant HCCs.
We assessed HCCs in the perinatal period in mother–infant dyads with and without severe psychiatric disorders.
We examined group differences in HCCs of mother–infant dyads (n = 18) subjected to severe maternal psychiatric disorders versus healthy control dyads (n = 27). We assessed the correlation of HCCs between mother and infant within both groups, and the association between current maternal symptoms and HCCs in patient dyads.
Median (interquartile range) and distribution of HCC differed in patients compared with control mothers (U = 468.5, P = 0.03). HCCs in infants of patients did not differ from control infants (U = 250.0, P = 0.67). Subsequently, we found that HCCs within healthy control dyads were correlated (n = 27, r 0.55 (0.14), P = 0.003), but were not within patient dyads (n = 18, r 0.082 (0.13), P = 0.746). HCCs in infants of patients showed a positive correlation with maternal symptoms (n = 16, r = 0.63 (0.06), P = 0.008).
These preliminary findings suggest that infant HCC reflect perinatal stress exposure. In infants, these early differences could influence lifetime hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis functioning, which might be associated with increased susceptibility to later disease.
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