Prenatal developmental origins of behavior and mental health: The influence of maternal stress in pregnancy

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2020 Oct;117:26-64. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.07.003. Epub 2017 Jul 28.


Accumulating research shows that prenatal exposure to maternal stress increases the risk for behavioral and mental health problems later in life. This review systematically analyzes the available human studies to identify harmful stressors, vulnerable periods during pregnancy, specificities in the outcome and biological correlates of the relation between maternal stress and offspring outcome. Effects of maternal stress on offspring neurodevelopment, cognitive development, negative affectivity, difficult temperament and psychiatric disorders are shown in numerous epidemiological and case-control studies. Offspring of both sexes are susceptible to prenatal stress but effects differ. There is not any specific vulnerable period of gestation; prenatal stress effects vary for different gestational ages possibly depending on the developmental stage of specific brain areas and circuits, stress system and immune system. Biological correlates in the prenatally stressed offspring are: aberrations in neurodevelopment, neurocognitive function, cerebral processing, functional and structural brain connectivity involving amygdalae and (pre)frontal cortex, changes in hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA)-axis and autonomous nervous system.

Keywords: Anxiety; Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); Autism; Autonomic nervous system; Brain network connectivity; Cortisol; Depression; Disaster exposure; EEG; Epigenetics; Event related potential (ERP); Fetal programming; Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); Gut microbiome; HPA-axis; Heart rate variability; Life events; Maternal psychological distress; Objective stress; Pregnancy-specific anxiety; Psychiatric disorders; Schizophrenia; Telomere biology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Stress, Psychological