Endocannabinoid signals in the developmental programming of delayed-onset neuropsychiatric and metabolic illnesses

Biochem Soc Trans. 2013 Dec;41(6):1569-76. doi: 10.1042/BST20130117.


It is increasingly recognized that maternal exposure to metabolic (nutritional) stimuli, infections, illicit or prescription drugs and environmental stressors during pregnancy can predispose affected offspring to developing devastating postnatal illnesses. If detrimental maternal stimuli coincide with critical periods of tissue production and organogenesis then they can permanently derail key cellular differentiation programs. Maternal programming can thus either provoke developmental failure directly ('direct hit') or introduce latent developmental errors that enable otherwise sub-threshold secondary stressors to manifest as disease ('double hit') postnatally. Accumulating evidence suggests that nervous system development is tightly controlled by maternal metabolic stimuli, and whose synaptic wiring and integrative capacity are adversely affected by dietary and hormonal challenges, infections or episodes of illicit drug use. Endocannabinoids, a family of signal lipids derived from polyunsaturated fatty acids, have been implicated in neuronal fate determination, the control of axonal growth, synaptogenesis and synaptic neurotransmission. Therefore the continuum and interdependence of endocannabinoid actions during the formation and function of synapses together with dynamic changes in focal and circulating endocannabinoid levels upon maternal nutritional imbalance suggest that endocannabinoids can execute the 'reprogramming' of specific neuronal networks. In the present paper, we review molecular evidence suggesting that maternal nutrition and metabolism during pregnancy can affect the formation and function of the hippocampus and hypothalamus by altering endocannabinoid signalling such that neuropsychiatric diseases and obesity respectively ensue in affected offspring. Moreover, we propose that the placenta, fetal adipose and nervous tissues interact via endocannabinoid signals. Thus endocannabinoids are hypothesized to act as a molecular substrate of maternal programming.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age of Onset
  • Animals
  • Endocannabinoids / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / metabolism*
  • Metabolic Syndrome / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction*


  • Endocannabinoids