Prenatal stress and risk for autism

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008 Oct;32(8):1519-32. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.06.004. Epub 2008 Jun 13.


This paper reviews several converging lines of research that suggest that prenatal exposure to environmental stress may increase risk for Autistic Disorder (AD). We first discuss studies finding that prenatal exposure to stressful life events is associated with significantly increased risk of AD, as well as other disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression. We then review evidence from animal and human studies that prenatal stress can produce both (a) abnormal postnatal behaviors that resemble the defining symptoms of AD, and (b) other abnormalities that have elevated rates in AD, such as learning deficits, seizure disorders, perinatal complications, immunologic and neuroinflammatory anomalies, and low postnatal tolerance for stress. We explain why an etiologic role for prenatal stress is compatible with genetic factors in AD, and describe how stress can disrupt fetal brain development. Finally, we discuss implications for understanding underlying processes in AD, including potential gene-environment interactions, and developing new therapies and early prevention programs.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Risk*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*