Psychoneuroendocrine processes in human pregnancy influence fetal development and health

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2005 Sep;30(8):724-43. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2005.02.004. Epub 2005 Apr 25.


Individual differences in psychoneuroendocrine function play an important role in health and disease. Developmental models postulate that these individual differences evolve through a progressive series of dynamic time-, place- and context-dependent interactions between genes and environments in fetal, infant and adult life. The effects of early experience have longer-lasting and more permanent consequences than those later in life. Experimental studies in animals have provided convincing evidence to support a causal role for stress-related psychoneuroendocrine processes in negatively influencing critical developmental and health outcomes over the life span, and have also offered valuable insights into putative physiological mechanisms. However, the generalizability of these findings from animals to humans may be limited by the existence of large inter-species differences in physiology and the developmental time-line. We have initiated a program of research in behavioral perinatology and conducted studies over the past several years to examine the effects of stress-related psychoneuroendocrine processes in human pregnancy on fetal developmental and health outcomes. Our findings support a significant and independent role for maternal prenatal stress in the etiology of prematurity-related outcomes, and suggest that these effects are mediated, in part, by the maternal-placental-fetal neuroendocrine axis, and specifically by placental corticotropin-releasing hormone. Our findings also suggest that the use of a fetal challenge paradigm offers a novel way to quantify fetal neurobehavioral maturity in utero, and that the maternal environment exerts a significant influence on the fetal neurodevelopmental processes related to recognition, memory and habituation. Finally, our findings provide preliminary evidence to support the notion that the influence of prenatal stress and maternal-placental hormones on the developing fetus may persist after birth, as assessed by measures of temperament and behavioral reactivity in the first few years of postnatal life. A description of this body of work is followed by the elucidation of questions for further research and a discussion of implications for life-span development and health.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Maternal-Fetal Relations / psychology
  • Neurosecretory Systems / physiopathology*
  • Perinatology / methods
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology
  • Placenta / physiopathology
  • Pregnancy / physiology*
  • Pregnancy / psychology*
  • Pregnancy Complications / etiology
  • Pregnancy Complications / physiopathology*
  • Pregnancy Outcome
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*