The Impact of Maternal Stress on the Fetal Brain – A Summary of Key Mechanisms

Posted on July 29, 2017

During gestation, the fetus is sensitive to environmental stressors that can have developmental and maturation consequences in later life. Maternal stress is suggested to increase the risk of the offspring developing cardiovascular, metabolic or neuropsychiatric disorders. These lifelong consequences summarize a concept that is known as fetal programming [1].

Many studies have shown that fetal programming has its origins in the over-production of the stress hormone, cortisol. Stress-induced cortisol release in the mother is known to be a significant mediator of prenatal psychological stress in the fetus [2]. The timing, type and intensity of the stressor all play important roles in fetal programming outcomes.

Investigation into cortisol’s role as a fetal programming mediator has shown that it can cross the placenta and induce long-lasting changes in the fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis [3]. Cortisol-induced changes to the HPAA have been shown to be associated with long-term cognitive and behavioral problems in later life.

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