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In order to improve maternal and child health, policy makers and health care workers must know what is contributing to maternal stress and how maternal mental health influences child growth and development.


  • What are the factors that are contributing to high stress and poor mental health for mothers on the Galapagos?
  • How does maternal mental health influence infant growth and development?

People: Hannah Jahnke, Amanda Thompson, Margaret Bentley, and Enrique Terán

This project, led by UNC-CH doctoral candidate Hannah Jahnke, examines the effects of maternal distress during and after pregnancy on infant development in the Galapagos Islands, where geographic isolation, food and water insecurity, and limited infrastructure contribute to daily stress for island residents. For this research, Hannah lived on San Cristóbal for one year interviewing women, administering surveys, and collecting biological measurements to assess how maternal distress may shape maternal and infant stress regulation and subsequent risk for metabolic disease and neurobehavioral disorders. In particular, this research examines how maternal distress is embodied in women and their infants through hormonal, epigenetic, and microbial pathways.

Results demonstrate that low maternal social support is a particularly salient measure of women’s distress on the islands, which are geographically and socially isolated from mainland Ecuador. Many participants have moved from the mainland to the islands and are living away from their families, now raising their children independently. Our findings show that low maternal social support contributes to dysregulated cortisol function in both women and their children. Further, since hormonal pathways in the body communicate with the gut microbiota, we tested how maternal distress may promote differential gut microbiome composition in infants. These analyses provide evidence that low social support, food insecurity, and depression in mothers diminish overall gut microbiota diversity and contribute to differential colonization of the infant gut, resulting in a higher abundance of pathogenic bacteria and lower abundance of protective bacteria. These results are particularly important, since unfavorable changes to the foundational gut microbiome have been shown to permanently alter neurodevelopment and increase risk for metabolic and autoimmune disease in the long-term. This project was completed in collaboration with Hospital Oskar Jandl.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, and UNC’ Off Campus Dissertation Fellowship. This work could not have been completed without the support of my research assistant, Paulina Lara.