The Impact of Prenatal Maternal Strain on Cognition and Attachment in Infancy

Project Details


Objective: The main purpose of this project is to investigate how maternal stress during pregnancy affects the attachment between mother and child, as well as the child’s brain development.
Methods and Hypotheses: Pregnant mothers will play a nursery rhyme twice a day via speakers to their unborn child (from gestational week 34 until birth). To investigate how the new-born processes information, we will play the rhyme that the children heard before birth, as well as a new unfamiliar rhyme to the children at 2, 5 and 20 weeks as well as 18 months of age. The children will hear both rhymes with the voice of the mother and the voice of a female stranger. We assume that the rhyme that was presented already before birth and the voice of the mother are easier to process for young children. Moreover, we will play rhymes in different languages and investigate if the native language is already easier to follow - on a brain level - at this early age. To measure this, we will acquire brain data with electroencephalography, which is a set of sensors measuring electrical activity on the scalp. Additionally, we will investigate how stress and well-being in mothers-to-be affect early mother-child attachment as well as brain development.
The novelty and likewise challenge of our project is the early age (starting at 2 weeks!), as well as the interdisciplinary from attachment research, over stress to cognitive neuroscience. High-tech brain caps with 128 sensors will allow to identify where exactly in the children’s brain the rhymes are processed and whether important information (such as a familiar rhyme or the voice of the mother) is activating additional brain regions or allows the brain to better follow to the speech signal. Last but not least, it is well known that children at this early time in life constantly cycle between sleep and wake phases (even while listening to rhymes!). We will therefore also examine whether new-borns process information differently when they are awake or in different sleep stages while listening to acoustic information.
To summarise, our study will be another step in order to better understand the impact of increasing stress levels in our society – which also affects pregnant mothers – on early attachment and brain development of our offspring.
The primary researchers are Univ.-Prof. Manuel Schabus (psychotherapist & expert of hdEEG, sleep and information processing in altered states of consciousness; University of Salzburg), Dr. Peter Schernhardt (clinical psychologist and specialist for attachment and mother-child interaction; Social Pediatric Center Traunstein), MSc. Monika Angerer (psychologist; University of Salzburg), and Dr. Cristina Florea (medical doctor; University of Salzburg).
Short titlePrenatal Programming and Cognitive Development
Effective start/end date1/10/2030/09/24