Clinical and pre-clinical studies have shown that early-life adversities, such as abuse or neglect, can increase the vulnerability to develop psychopathologies and cognitive decline later in life. Remarkably, the lasting consequences of stress during this sensitive period on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and emotional function closely resemble the long-term effects of early malnutrition and suggest a possible common pathway mediating these effects. During early-life, brain development is affected by both exogenous factors, like nutrition and maternal care as well as by endogenous modulators including stress hormones. These elements, while mostly considered for their independent actions, clearly do not act alone but rather in a synergistic manner. In order to better understand how the programming by early-life stress takes place, it is important to gain further insight into the exact interplay of these key elements, the possible common pathways as well as the underlying molecular mechanisms that mediate their effects. We here review evidence that exposure to both early-life stress and early-life under-/malnutrition similarly lead to life-long alterations on the neuroendocrine stress system and modify emotional functions. We further discuss how the different key elements of the early-life environment interact and affect one another and next suggest a possible role for the early-life adversity induced alterations in metabolic hormones and nutrient availability in shaping later stress responses and emotional function throughout life, possibly via epigenetic mechanisms. Such knowledge will help to develop intervention strategies, which gives the advantage of viewing the synergistic action of a more complete set of changes induced by early-life adversity.
Keywords: Early-life stress; HPA axis; emotional functions; epigenetic mechanisms; leptin; nutrition.