Maternal distress during pregnancy increases plasma levels of cortisol and corticotrophin releasing hormone in the mother and foetus. These may contribute to insulin resistance and behaviour disorders in their offspring that include attention and learning deficits, generalized anxiety and depression. The changes in behaviour, with or independent of alterations in the function of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, can be induced by prenatal stress in laboratory rodents and non-human primates. The appearance of such changes depends on the timing of the maternal stress, its intensity and duration, gender of the offspring and is associated with structural changes in the hippocampus, frontal cortex, amygdala and nucleus accumbens. The dysregulation of the HPA axis and behaviour changes can be prevented by maternal adrenalectomy. However, only the increased anxiety and alterations in HPA axis are re-instated by maternal injection of corticosterone.
Conclusion: Excess circulating maternal stress hormones alter the programming of foetal neurons, and together with genetic factors, the postnatal environment and quality of maternal attention, determine the behaviour of the offspring.