The Association Between Maternal Cortisol and Infant Amygdala Volume Is Moderated by Socioeconomic Status

Max P. Herzberg, Regina Triplett, Ronald McCarthy, Sydney Kaplan, Dimitrios Alexopoulos, Dominique Meyer, Jyoti Arora, J. Philip Miller, Tara A. Smyser, Erik D. Herzog, Sarah K. England, Peinan Zhao, Deanna M. Barch, Cynthia E. Rogers, Barbara B. Warner, Christopher D. Smyser, Joan Luby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: It has been well established that socioeconomic status is associated with mental and physical health as well as brain development, with emerging data suggesting that these relationships begin in utero. However, less is known about how prenatal socioeconomic environments interact with the gestational environment to affect neonatal brain volume. Methods: Maternal cortisol output measured at each trimester of pregnancy and neonatal brain structure were assessed in 241 mother-infant dyads. We examined associations between the trajectory of maternal cortisol output across pregnancy and volumes of cortisol receptor–rich regions of the brain, including the amygdala, hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex, and caudate. Given the known effects of poverty on infant brain structure, socioeconomic disadvantage was included as a moderating variable. Results: Neonatal amygdala volume was predicted by an interaction between maternal cortisol output across pregnancy and socioeconomic disadvantage (standardized β = −0.31, p < .001), controlling for postmenstrual age at scan, infant sex, and total gray matter volume. Notably, amygdala volumes were positively associated with maternal cortisol for infants with maternal disadvantage scores 1 standard deviation below the mean (i.e., less disadvantage) (simple slope = 123.36, p < .01), while the association was negative in infants with maternal disadvantage 1 standard deviation above the mean (i.e., more disadvantage) (simple slope = −82.70, p = .02). Individuals with disadvantage scores at the mean showed no association, and there were no significant interactions in the other brain regions examined. Conclusions: These data suggest that fetal development of the amygdala is differentially affected by maternal cortisol production at varying levels of socioeconomic advantage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)837-846
Number of pages10
JournalBiological Psychiatry Global Open Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2023


  • Amygdala
  • Cortisol
  • Development
  • Infancy
  • Neonatal MRI
  • Socioeconomic status


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