Maternal prenatal depression predicts infant negative affect via maternal inflammatory cytokine levels

Hanna C. Gustafsson, Elinor L. Sullivan, Elizabeth K. Nousen, Ceri A. Sullivan, Elaine Huang, Monica Rincon, Joel T. Nigg, Jennifer M. Loftis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy are associated with risk for offspring emotional and behavioral problems, but the mechanisms by which this association occurs are not known. Infant elevated negative affect (increased crying, irritability, fearfulness, etc.) is a key risk factor for future psychopathology, so understanding its determinants has prevention and early intervention potential. An understudied yet promising hypothesis is that maternal mood affects infant mood via maternal prenatal inflammatory mechanisms, but this has not been prospectively examined in humans. Using data from a pilot study of women followed from the second trimester of pregnancy through six months postpartum (N = 68) our goal was to initiate a prospective study as to whether maternal inflammatory cytokines mediate the association between maternal depressive symptoms and infant offspring negative affect. The study sample was designed to examine a broad range of likely self-regulation and mood-regulation problems in offspring; to that end we over-selected women with a family history or their own history of elevated symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Results supported the hypothesis: maternal pro-inflammatory cytokines during the third trimester (indexed using a latent variable that included plasma interleukin-6, tumor necrosis factor-alpha and monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 concentrations as indicators) mediated the effect, such that higher maternal depressive symptoms were associated with higher maternal inflammation, and this mediated the effect on maternal report of infant negative affect (controlling for maternal affect during the infant period). This is the first human study to demonstrate that maternal inflammatory cytokines mediate the association between prenatal depression and infant outcomes, and the first to demonstrate a biological mechanism through which depressive symptoms impact infant temperament.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)470-481
Number of pages12
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
StatePublished - Oct 2018


  • Cytokines
  • Infant temperament
  • Inflammation
  • Negative affect
  • Prenatal depression

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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