Fetal origins of mental health: evidence and mechanisms

Brain Behav Immun. 2009 Oct;23(7):905-16. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2009.02.001. Epub 2009 Feb 13.


The concept of fetal programming states that changes in the fetal environment during sensitive periods of organ development may cause long-lasting changes in the structure and functioning of these organs later in life and influence the risk for chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Fetal growth is a summary marker of the fetal environment and is reflected by relatively easy-to-obtain measures of size at birth such as birth weight. In the last two decades, a body of evidence emerged linking fetal growth with behavioural and mental health outcomes later in life. Cognitive functioning and behavioural problems in childhood, in particular inattention/hyperactivity, have been shown to be inversely related to fetal growth. Although results are mixed, risk for personality disorders and schizophrenia seems to be linked with fetal growth and adversity, while the evidence for mood disorders is weak. Vulnerability for psychopathology may also be influenced by prenatal adversity. There is evidence for associations of fetal growth with temperament in childhood as well as stress reactivity and distress. The associations of fetal growth with mental health later in life are potentially caused by specific prenatal factors such as maternal smoking, alcohol, toxins/drugs, nutrition, psychosocial stress and infection during pregnancy. The mechanisms likely involve changes in neurodevelopment and in the set point of neuroendocrine systems, and there is evidence that prenatal adversity interacts with genetic and postnatal environmental factors. Future studies should examine the effects of specific prenatal factors and attempt to disentangle genetic and prenatal environmental effects.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Fetal Development*
  • Fetus / anatomy & histology*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / etiology*
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / physiopathology