Prenatal stress and the developing brain: Risks for neurodevelopmental disorders

Dev Psychopathol. 2018 Aug;30(3):743-762. doi: 10.1017/S0954579418000342.


The prenatal period is increasingly considered as a crucial target for the primary prevention of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. Understanding their pathophysiological mechanisms remains a great challenge. Our review reveals new insights from prenatal brain development research, involving (epi)genetic research, neuroscience, recent imaging techniques, physical modeling, and computational simulation studies. Studies examining the effect of prenatal exposure to maternal distress on offspring brain development, using brain imaging techniques, reveal effects at birth and up into adulthood. Structural and functional changes are observed in several brain regions including the prefrontal, parietal, and temporal lobes, as well as the cerebellum, hippocampus, and amygdala. Furthermore, alterations are seen in functional connectivity of amygdalar-thalamus networks and in intrinsic brain networks, including default mode and attentional networks. The observed changes underlie offspring behavioral, cognitive, emotional development, and susceptibility to neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. It is concluded that used brain measures have not yet been validated with regard to sensitivity, specificity, accuracy, or robustness in predicting neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. Therefore, more prospective long-term longitudinal follow-up studies starting early in pregnancy should be carried out, in order to examine brain developmental measures as mediators in mediating the link between prenatal stress and offspring behavioral, cognitive, and emotional problems and susceptibility for disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / embryology
  • Amygdala / physiopathology
  • Brain / embryology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Cerebellum / embryology
  • Cerebellum / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / embryology
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / embryology
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology
  • Neurodevelopmental Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Neurodevelopmental Disorders / psychology
  • Parietal Lobe / embryology
  • Parietal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / embryology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Temporal Lobe / embryology
  • Temporal Lobe / physiopathology