New study out on maternal hypertensive pregnancy disorders and risk of mental disorders in children

A new study by Marius Lahti-Pulkkinen and others was recently published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.  Quoting the press release:


“A Finnish study of 4,743 mother-child pairs found associations between hypertensive pregnancy disorders – including chronic hypertension (high blood pressure), gestational hypertension, preeclampsia and eclampsia – and childhood mental disorders. Preeclampsia is a common pregnancy complication often characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine, which indicates damage to other organs including the liver and kidneys. Eclampsia is a severe complication of preeclampsia in which high blood pressure during pregnancy results in seizures.”

Maternal preeclampsia and its severity were associated with an increase in the risk of any childhood mental disorder and psychological development and behavioral and emotional disorders in the offspring.


“While previous studies have shown significant effects of preeclampsia on ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia in the offspring, a novel aspect of our findings was that the predisposing effects of maternal preeclampsia extended to any childhood mental disorder in the offspring.”

“The findings emphasize the need for preventive interventions and treatments for maternal hypertensive disorders, since such interventions have the potential to benefit both the well-being of the expectant mother and her offspring [and] shed important new light on the etiology of childhood mental disorders. This information may help in targeting preventive interventions and support for families at risk, and aid clinicians in understanding issues and the underlying causes of childhood mental disorders.”

Read the full press release here!

New study: Chronic inflammation in pregnancy associated with delays in child neurodevelopment

In a study published in Biological psychiatry, Girchenko and others report that the children of mothers with higher levels of inflammation during pregnancy had a higher risk of child neurodevelopmental delay.

Additionally, maternal inflammation mediated the effects of prenatal environmental adversity on child neurodevelopmental delay.

The full press release is available here.

Obesity – risky for the mother, and for the child?

Obesity and overweight are increasing at an alarming rate, and more and more women are entering pregnancy with obesity. Not only related to physical health, maternal early pregnancy overweight and obesity are also associated with consistently higher levels of depressive symptoms throughout and after pregnancy, as shown by psychologist Satu Kumpulainen, who is about to defend her PhD this month.

Looking beyond the immediate risks that manifest during pregnancy and childbirth, Satu also found that those young adults whose mothers had been obese or overweight during pregnancy had altered levels of cortisol – the so-called “stress hormone” – even as adults. This interesting finding supports the hypothesis that maternal overweight and obesity can alter the development of the offspring’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis, an important part of the autonomous nervous system that manages our responses to stress. This could have long-lasting consequences for the child.

Satu Kumpulainen

Somewhat surprisingly, Satu also found evidence that  challenges the view that lower childhood cognitive functioning poses a risk for adiposity and a less physically active lifestyle in adulthood. Her work revealed that among young Finns, those who had better cognitive abilities as children tended to have lower levels of physical activity during the day and sit more as young adults – downside of being buried behind study books and office desks, perhaps?

Satu Kumpulainen is defending her doctoral dissertation entitled “Obesity and associated health risks – outcomes of maternal early pregnancy obesity and child’s cognition” in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki, on 25 January 2019 at 12:00. The event is open for anyone who wishes to hear more about the topic! The examination will take place at the following address: Päärakennus, Auditorium XV, Unioninkatu 34.  Professor Annick Bogaerts, from KU Leuven in Belgium, will serve as the opponent, and Professor Katri Räikkönen-Talvitie as the custos. The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service.

/Sara Sammallahti

New study on APOE gene variants and dementia risk

In a recent study we showed that the ɛ4 variant of APOE, the single most important gene for cognitive aging, was associated with dementia risk in 1453 elderly participants of the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study (HBCS), whereas regulatory variants linked with the transcriptional activity of the gene known as rs405509 and rs440446 was not. The study by Rantalainen et al is currently in press in Neurobiology of Aging.

The APOE gene has three common variants or isoforms, ɛ2, ɛ3 and ɛ4, which code for different variants of apolipoprotein E (apoE). The apoE protein performs multiple key functions in the central nervous system, and the ɛ4 isoform of the gene produces a functionally deficient form of the protein. The ɛ4 isoform of the gene has been found in numerous studies to be associated with a higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and it has also been linked with lower performance in measures of normal cognitive functioning particularly in old age.

Other variants in the APOE gene have also been associated with the risk of dementia and AD. These include single-nucleotide polymorphisms that are involved in the regulation the gene’s activity of RNA transcription leading to production of the apoE protein. However, these associations have varied between studies according to the age and ethnicity of the study participants, and studies on the associations between these variants and normal cognitive functioning have been extremely scarce.

Our results replicate the well-documented finding regarding the dementia risk factor status of APOE ɛ4 in the HBCS cohort. Importantly, the new study complements a study published in the same journal in 2016 in which we found that the rs405509 and rs440446 regulatory variants were associated with cognitive ability in old age and with aging-related cognitive change, but the protein-coding  ɛ4 isoform was not. Together these findings from a single study cohort suggest that in the HBCS the APOE gene may be associated with dementia and AD risk and aging-related cognitive change via at least partially distinct mechanisms: a protein isoform-dependent mechanism associated with risk of dementia and AD, and an isoform-independent mechanism associated with aging-related cognitive change.

New doctoral student in Sleep and Mind

At the beginning of August Risto started as a doctoral student in Sleep and Mind group. Risto’s research will likely combine sleep EEG macro- and microstructure with endogenous factors of neural plasticity and cognitive performance, mainly overnight learning.

When young, Risto worked several years in software quality consultancy. While responsibilities with varying degree of technical and procedural challenges kept things hot, Risto’s increasing interest in human thought, emotion, behaviour and underlying physiological phenomena lead him to study psychology in University of Helsinki. Working as a research assistant in two research groups boosted Risto’s enthusiasm about data quality and his eagerness to contribute to creating new, reliable knowledge. Between master’s and doctoral studies Risto gathered clinical experience in HYKS child psychiatry.

Risto lives with his wife and 2- and 4-year-old nonstoppers. Risto enjoys books, high fidelity audio, good wines, simple exercise and riding his Kawasaki on a race track.

Cognitive ability in young adulthood predicts risk of early-onset dementia

Lower cognitive ability in young adulthood was found to predict a higher risk of early-onset dementia among men from the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study in a study by Rantalainen and others, recently published in Neurology.

Men with lower cognitive ability scores at 20 years of age had a higher risk of receiving a diagnosis of dementia before 65 years of age, but not at later ages.

The associations were strongest with the total cognitive ability and verbal reasoning ability scores and were not explained by childhood socioeconomic status or maternal or early developmental factors. While lower arithmetic and visuospatial reasoning ability were also associated with a higher risk of early-onset dementia, these associations were weaker. However, the associations were not independent from the participant’s education, likely because cognitive ability and educational attainment are quite closely related.

Higher cognitive ability is thought to protect against dementia due to a more robust brain structure and learned cognitive skills and strategies that help preserve a higher-ability individual’s ability to function. The finding that cognitive ability predicted early-onset, but not late-onset dementia risk is likely related to heritable and non-heritable factors influencing cognitive ability to a different degree at different points in the lifespan, as individuals choose occupational, social and other environments according to their genetic predispositions.

/ Ville Rantalainen

Visit by Prof Rebecca Reynolds

We were very happy to welcome a long-term collaborator, Professor Rebecca Reynolds from the University of Edinburgh for a visit recently. Rebecca is an expert in the mechanisms that link prenatal development and pregnancy risk factors such as maternal obesity with offspring development across the life span. A specialist in endocrinology by background, Rebecca does both patient work and research including clinical trials, studies in the lab, and epidemiological research.

Profile photo

Our group first got to know Rebecca in person when she very kindly agreed to act as the official opponent for one of the PhD students in the group. Since then, we have been fortunate to work with Rebecca and her group on several projects. Most recently, this collaboration has produced articles such as those showing that

This was not the first time Rebecca visited us – and in return, members of the DePsy group have visited Edinburgh on several occasions, both for conferences and meetings and for longer research visits.

During this visit, Rebecca gave an interesting talk on the prenatal programming of the stress axis, held a journal club meeting, and worked on the several manuscripts that are being prepared together at the moment. And of course, visits like this aren’t only about the science itself: we also had the opportunity to take some time off to catch up and try some Finnish cheese and Scottish short-bread – which work together very well!