Fetal programming of brain development: intrauterine stress and susceptibility to psychopathology

Sci Signal. 2012 Oct 9;5(245):pt7. doi: 10.1126/scisignal.2003406.


The fetal brain is highly plastic and is not only receptive to but requires cues from its environment to develop properly. Based on an understanding of evolutionary biology, developmental plasticity, and life history theory, one can predict that stressors are an important environmental condition that may influence brain development. In fact, the available empirical evidence appears to support the notion that exposure to excess stress in intrauterine life has the potential to adversely affect short- and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes with implications for altered susceptibility for mental health disorders in childhood and adult life. In this presentation, we provide a rationale for proposing that endocrine and inflammatory stress mediators are key candidate pathways for programming brain development. These mediators are responsive to a diverse set of intrauterine perturbations and alter key signaling pathways critical for brain development, including but not limited to mammalian target of rapamycin, Wnt (wingless), Sonic hedgehog, and reelin signaling. We suggest that recent advances in neuroimaging and other methods now afford us an unprecedented opportunity to advance our understanding of this important topic. Additionally, we provide empirical evidence from two recently published papers for fetal programming of human brain development. We conclude by suggesting some future directions for expanding this field of research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Brain / embryology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Psychopathology*
  • Reelin Protein
  • Stress, Physiological*