Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2001;24:1161-92. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.1161.


Naturally occurring variations in maternal care alter the expression of genes that regulate behavioral and endocrine responses to stress, as well as hippocampal synaptic development. These effects form the basis for the development of stable, individual differences in stress reactivity and certain forms of cognition. Maternal care also influences the maternal behavior of female offspring, an effect that appears to be related to oxytocin receptor gene expression, and which forms the basis for the intergenerational transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity. Patterns of maternal care that increase stress reactivity in offspring are enhanced by stressors imposed on the mother. These findings provide evidence for the importance of parental care as a mediator of the effects of environmental adversity on neural development.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Gene Expression*
  • Hippocampus / growth & development
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior*
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / genetics
  • Stress, Physiological / genetics*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / genetics*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology


  • Receptors, Oxytocin