Understanding the Impact of Stress on the Maternal Brain: A New Study Funded by the National Institute of Health

May 9, 2023 - Shelly DeJong

Dr. Joseph Lonstein, a behavioral neuroscientist in the MSU Department of Psychology, along with Drs. Galit Pelled, a neuroscientist in MSU Biomedical Engineering and Radiology, and Fredric Manfredsson at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix have received a $425,000 grant from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, a subdivision of the National Institute of Health. This two-year grant will fund their project, Neural Basis of Stress-Derailed Motherhood, which aims to examine how stress affects a mother’s brain and behavior in a laboratory rat model. 

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are used by millions of people – including many pregnant and postpartum mothers - for a range of mental health issues. But there is limited understanding of how motherhood normally changes the brain’s serotonin system and what the impacts of stress are on the maternal brain.  

“A healthy maternal brain is not the same as the brains of those who are not mothers, and a stressed maternal brain is not the same as everybody else’s brain either” said Dr. Lonstein. “Our goal is to help understand how the maternal brain responds to stress and how that stress affects the serotonin system and postpartum behavior.” 

The grant will allow the lab to use a laboratory rat model to study the effects of becoming a mother for the first time on the brain’s serotonin system and the impact of stress on this system. While rodents cannot express anxiety or depression, they do display behaviors similar to some aspects of human anxiety and depression. The research also examines the relationship between changes in the brain and postpartum maternal caregiving behavior of infants. 

The researchers hope this study eventually helps medical professionals better understand how the maternal brain processes stress and the unique ways that it responds to it. However, Dr. Lonstein is careful to note that their research is a piece of a much larger puzzle and is not a direct translational study to solve issues such as behavioral dysfunction or SSRI use by pregnant or postpartum women. 

 “We hope that by using a laboratory rat model, we can understand fundamental mechanisms that may at some point be used by clinicians or physicians to be able to better understand the maternal brain, including how the maternal brain processes stress to alter brain chemistry and behavior,” said Dr. Lonstein. 

Traditionally, women’s health has often been overlooked when it comes to priorities in research and care. This study strives to keep mothers at the forefront. “We’re interested in the mothers,” said Dr. Lonstein. “I want to know what is going on in her head and what is most important for her well-being."