Prenatal origins of individual variation in behavior and immunity

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2005 Feb;29(1):39-49. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2004.11.003. Epub 2004 Dec 9.


The in utero environment plays a critical role in initiating the normal ontogeny of many physiological systems. As a consequence, disturbances during prenatal life can affect the baby's maturational trajectory and sometimes cause chronic alterations that influence health postpartum. Our review summarizes a series of studies in rhesus monkeys supporting these conclusions. Psychological disturbance or pharmacological stimulation of the gravid female's pituitary-adrenal axis affected the infant's neurological development: monkeys evinced immature neuromotor reflexes at birth, greater emotionality during the first year of life, and a smaller hippocampus as juveniles. Immune responses of the infants were also affected: lymphocyte proliferation, natural killer activity and cytokine production were reduced. Several mediating pathways were implicated, including the placental transfer of hormones and nutrients, and a differential response of the infant monkey to the rearing environment. For example, the establishment of beneficial types of microflora in the gastrointestinal tract was significantly reduced, which was associated with a greater risk for enteric infection. These findings indicate that events during fetal life can persistently influence physiology after birth and tilt the balance away from health and toward illness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Behavior / physiology*
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Human Development / physiology
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Immunity, Maternally-Acquired
  • Individuality*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Neuroimmunomodulation*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects