The lasting impact of early-life adversity on individuals and their descendants: potential mechanisms and hope for intervention

Genes Brain Behav. 2016 Jan;15(1):155-68. doi: 10.1111/gbb.12263. Epub 2015 Nov 13.


The adverse effects of early-life stress are pervasive, with well-established mental and physical health consequences for exposed individuals. The impact of early adverse experiences is also highly persistent, with documented increases in risk for mental illness across the life span that are accompanied by stable alterations in neural function and hormonal responses to stress. Here, we review some of these 'stress phenotypes', with a focus on intermediary factors that may signal risk for long-term mental health outcomes, such as altered development of the fear regulation system. Intriguingly, recent research suggests that such stress phenotypes may persist even beyond the life span of the individuals, with consequences for their offspring and grand-offspring. Phenotypic characteristics may be transmitted to future generations via either the matriline or the patriline, a phenomenon that has been demonstrated in both human and animal studies. In this review, we highlight behavioral and epigenetic factors that may contribute to this multigenerational transmission and discuss the potential of various treatment approaches that may halt the cycle of stress phenotypes.

Keywords: Early-life stress; emotion regulation; epigenetics; fear learning; memory; treatment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Long Term Adverse Effects / genetics*
  • Long Term Adverse Effects / physiopathology
  • Long Term Adverse Effects / therapy
  • Phenotype
  • Stress, Psychological / genetics*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / therapy