The long-term consequences of exposure to excess stress, particularly during sensitive developmental windows, on the initiation and progression of many complex, common physical and mental disorders that confer a major global burden of disease are well established. The period of intrauterine life represents among the most sensitive of these windows, at which time the effects of stress may be transmitted inter-generationally from a mother to her as-yet-unborn child. As explicated by the concept of fetal or developmental programming of health and disease susceptibility, a growing body of evidence supports the notion that health and disease susceptibility is determined by the dynamic interplay between genetic makeup and environment, particularly during intrauterine and early postnatal life. Except in extreme cases, an adverse intrauterine exposure may not, per se, 'cause' disease, but, instead, may determine propensity for disease(s) in later life (by shaping phenotypic responsivity to endogenous and exogenous disease-related risk conditions). Accumulating evidence suggests that maternal psychological and social stress during pregnancy represents one such condition that may adversely affect the developing child, with important implications for a diverse range of physical and mental health outcomes. In this paper we review primarily our own contributions to the field of maternal stress during pregnancy and child mental and physical health-related outcomes. We present findings on stress-related maternal-placental-fetal endocrine and immune/inflammatory processes that may mediate the effects of various adverse conditions during pregnancy on the developing human embryo and fetus. We enunciate conceptual and methodological issues related to the assessment of stress during pregnancy and discuss potential mechanisms of intergenerational transmission of the effects of stress. Lastly, we describe on-going research and some future directions of our program.
Keywords: Development; Disease risk; Fetal programming; Health; Pregnancy; Prenatal stress.
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