New perspectives into children’s mental health issues

Going abroad was an important career move for Sara Sammallahti. A grant of EUR 50,000 from the Orion Research Foundation made it possible for her to join a group of Dutch and American researchers. Sammallahti is studying the effects of the mother’s well-being during pregnancy on the brain of the foetus.

Gynaecology, paediatrics, radiology, and child and adult psychiatry – Sara Sammallahti, who graduated with a doctorate in paediatrics, couldn’t have hoped for a more diverse selection of material.

Sammallahti is interested in mothers’ well-being during pregnancy and its effects on the brain of the foetus.

“It was a very special opportunity to join this Dutch-American epidemiological research project as a postdoctoral researcher in February. This offers a completely new perspective: brain imaging data on thousands of children, from the foetal stage to teenagers.”

So far, the effects of expectant mothers’ mental health on foetal brain development have not been studied properly. Sammallahti says this is an important area of research.

“On the one hand, we know that mental health issues are a major problem in our society. On the other hand, we understand how sensitive a stage foetal development is for the brain. Foetal brain development doesn’t take place in a vacuum. The womb is a special kind of environment affected by the mother’s well-being during pregnancy.”

Inspiring and motivating material

Sammallahti is part of a research group at Harvard University and the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. The group is examining the relationship between the mother’s mental health during pregnancy with the child’s cognitive abilities and mental health. The researchers have access to follow-up material on nearly 10,000 mothers, in addition to children’s MRI brain scans.

“For me, the brain imaging is a new aspect, and the most interesting aspect of the project. I’m responsible for examining the imaging material using psychological methods: studying the children’s mental health, intelligence and executive functions. What an amazing opportunity!”

If Sammallahti were granted a wish, she would increase the investment in mothers’ and families’ well-being during pregnancy in Finland. More investment is needed, even though Finland’s minimal mother and child mortality rate and high-quality child healthcare services are excellent achievements.

“I believe that further investment would reduce children’s mental health issues, which are costly for society, as well as issues related to attention and other cognitive abilities. In terms of early intervention, addressing expectant mothers’ problems is the most effective way to prevent children’s problems.”

Between two universities

Sammallahti is planning to continue in this research project until the end of 2020. In practice, this means frequent flying between Boston and Rotterdam.

“As a postdoctoral researcher, this is a very significant project for my career, as I need to prove to others that I’m capable of working independently abroad. Of course, this is also a unique learning opportunity: we don’t have groups or material of this type in Finland.”

In 2018, the Orion Research Foundation granted EUR 50,000 to Sammallahti for research work abroad. This enabled her to leave her day job as a physician and become a full-time researcher.

“This wouldn’t have been possible without the grant. I couldn’t have focused on research, let alone in a group that required me to live and work on two continents.”

She spends her grant in the same manner as salary: on removal expenses, foreign health insurance and everyday expenses.

“It’s important that there are private operators who support young researchers to a major extent. Grants of this type make research possible.”

What Sara Sammallahti studies in Rotterdam and Boston:

  • The Orion Research Foundation granted EUR 50,000 to Sara Sammallahti for postdoctoral research abroad in 2019.
  • For the next eighteen months, Sammallahti will work under the supervision of Professor Tiemeier as part of a research group at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University.
  • The study combines neuroscience with epidemiology and psychiatry, examining the effects of foetal exposure on brain development and mental health from a new perspective.
  • The purpose is to understand early mechanisms affecting foetal brain development that lead to mental health issues. The study also seeks to find new ways to prevent children’s mental health issues.



Text and photo: Essi Kähkönen

20 August 2019