Impact of early-life stress on the medial prefrontal cortex functions - a search for the pathomechanisms of anxiety and mood disorders

Pharmacol Rep. 2013;65(6):1462-70. doi: 10.1016/s1734-1140(13)71506-8.


Although anxiety and mood disorders (MDs) are the most common mental diseases, the etiologies and mechanisms of these psychopathologies are still a matter of debate. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is a brain structure that is strongly implicated in the pathophysiology of these disorders. A growing number of epidemiological and clinical studies show that early-life stress (ELS) during the critical period of brain development may increase the risk for anxiety and MDs. Neuroimaging analyses in humans and numerous reports from animal models clearly demonstrate that ELS affects behaviors that are dependent on the mPFC, as well as neuronal activity and synaptic plasticity within the mPFC. The mechanisms engaged in ELS-induced changes in mPFC function involve alterations in the developmental trajectory of the mPFC and may be responsible for the emergence of both early-onset (during childhood and adolescence) and adulthood-onset anxiety and MDs. ELS-evoked changes in mPFC synaptic plasticity may constitute an example of metaplasticity. ELS may program brain functions by affecting glucocorticoid levels. On the molecular level, ELS-induced programming is registered by epigenetic mechanisms, such as changes in DNA methylation pattern, histone acetylation and microRNA expression. Vulnerability and resilience to ELS-related anxiety and MDs depend on the interaction between individual genetic predispositions, early-life experiences and later-life environment. In conclusion, ELS may constitute a significant etiological factor for anxiety and MDs, whereas animal models of ELS are helpful tools for understanding the pathomechanisms of these disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / genetics
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics
  • Humans
  • Mood Disorders / genetics
  • Mood Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / genetics
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*