The effects of early life stress on the epigenome: From the womb to adulthood and even before

Exp Neurol. 2015 Jun;268:10-20. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2014.09.001. Epub 2014 Sep 9.


Exposure to early life stress (ELS), such as childhood abuse and neglect is a well established major risk factor for developing psychiatric and behavioral disorders later in life. Both prenatal and postnatal stressors have been shown to have a long-lasting impact on adult pathological states where the type and timing of the stressor are important factors to consider. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that epigenetic mechanisms play a major role in the biological embedding of ELS. A number of studies now indicate that the epigenome is responsive to external environmental exposures, including the social environment, both during intra-uterine development and after birth. In this review, we summarize the evidence of long-lasting effects of ELS on mental health and behavior and highlight common and distinct epigenetic effects of stress exposure at different stages during development. These stages include postnatal stress, prenatal stress, i.e. in utero and stress occurring pre-conception, i.e. effects of stress exposure transmitted to the next generation. We also delineate the evidence for the possible molecular mechanisms involved in epigenetic programming by ELS and how these maybe distinct, according to the timing of the stress exposure.

Keywords: DNA methylation; Early life stress; Epigenetic; MicroRNAs; Postnatal stress; Prenatal stress; Stress in utero; Transgenerational.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / physiology*
  • Epigenomics*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • MicroRNAs
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • MicroRNAs