Gender differences in the effects of prenatal stress on brain development and behaviour

Neurochem Res. 2007 Oct;32(10):1730-40. doi: 10.1007/s11064-007-9339-4. Epub 2007 Apr 4.


An increased incidence of anxiety, depression and attention deficits in children has been linked to psychological stress during pregnancy. Subjection of a pregnant rat to stress at a time when the foetal limbic and hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axes develop results in anxiogenic and depressive behaviour and learning and attention deficits in the offspring, which depend on its gender, intensity and timing of the maternal stress and behaviour being tested. Maternal stress increases corticosterone levels in the foetal brain, decreases foetal testosterone and brain aromatase activity in males, and alters brain catecholamine activity to that in females. Learning deficits, reductions in hippocampal neurogenesis, LTP and dendritic spine density in the prefrontal cortex are more readily seen in prenatally-stressed males, while anxiety, depression and increased response of the HPA axis to stress are more prevalent in females. Genders may differ in the sensitivity of developing brain areas to stress hormones.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Depression / etiology
  • Depression / psychology
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Learning Disabilities / etiology
  • Learning Disabilities / psychology
  • Male
  • Memory Disorders / etiology
  • Memory Disorders / psychology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / psychology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Rats
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*