Epigenetic programming of stress responses through variations in maternal care

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1036:167-80. doi: 10.1196/annals.1330.011.


Early life experiences shape an individual's physical and mental health across the lifespan. Not surprisingly, an upbringing that is associated with adversity can produce detrimental effects on health. A central theme that arises from studies in human and nonhuman species is that the effects of adversity are mediated by the interactions between a mother and her young. In this review we describe some of the long-term effects of maternal care on the offspring and we focus on the impact of naturally occurring variations in the behavior of female rats. Of particular interest are mothers that engage in high or low amounts of licking/grooming (LG) and arched-back nursing (ABN) of their pups, but do so within the normal range for this species. Such variations in LG-ABN can alter the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and cognitive and emotional development by directly affecting the underlying neural mechanisms. At the heart of these mechanisms is gene expression. By studying the hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor gene, we have identified that maternal care regulates its expression by changing two processes: the acetylation of histones H3-K9, and the methylation of the NGFI-A consensus sequence on the exon 1(7) promoter. Sustained "maternal effects" appear elsewhere in biology, including plants, insects, and lizards, and may have evolved to program advantages in the environments that the offspring will likely face as adults. Given the importance of early life and parent-child interactions to later behavior, prevention and intervention programs should target this critical phase of development.

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Animals
  • Child, Preschool
  • Choline O-Acetyltransferase / metabolism
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / physiology*
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / enzymology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Infant
  • Maternal Behavior*
  • Maze Learning
  • Mice
  • Mother-Child Relations
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • Rats
  • Receptor, trkB / genetics*
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / genetics*
  • Stress, Physiological / psychology*


  • NR2A NMDA receptor
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Choline O-Acetyltransferase
  • Receptor, trkB