In Brief: Mothers with Affective Illness (Even In Remission) Have Deficits in Emotional Processing

By | November 21, 2018

We have long known that postpartum depression may have negative effects on the child and may contribute to deficits in social development and emotional regulation.  Exactly what mediates these effects is not so clear; however, researchers have observed that depressed mothers tend to be less responsive to their children’s emotional cues and are more likely to display negative affect.

A recent study presented at the 31st European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress in Barcelona, Spain looked at emotional processing in a group of women with histories of affective illness.   The study included 57 pregnant women recruited from obstetric services: 22 women with a history of unipolar depression, 7 with a history of bipolar disorder, and 28 healthy controls with no history of psychiatric illness. All of the women with affective disorders were in remission.

Between weeks 27 and 39 of gestation, participants completed the Facial Emotion Recognition and Baby Paradigm emotion processing tasks.  Women with histories of unipolar depression were more likely to interpret infant facial expressions and vocal signals more negatively.  In contrast, mothers with histories of bipolar disorder were more likely to recognize positive emotions, they were less accurate in interpreting emotions overall.

Why is this important?

Young infants rely upon their mothers to recognize and to regulate to their own emotions. The mother and other caregivers teach their children by modeling appropriate responses and behaviors, and if a mother is unable to process emotions accurately, this may affect the child’s ability to respond to and regulate affective states, which may lead to problems with attachment and may increase the child’s vulnerability to behavioral problems and affective disorders later on.

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One of the things that is so interesting in this study is that the researchers demonstrated that these deficits in emotional processing were detectable even when the women were well.  These deficits in emotional processing were not a symptom of affective illness.

This study raises the possibility of different types of interventions for new mothers with affective illness.  While we tend to target mood symptoms, this study suggests that mothers and their children may also benefit from interventions with focus on improving emotional processing.

Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD

Maternal Mental Illness Impairs Recognition of Child Emotions (Medscape – free subscription)

MGH Center for Women's Mental Health