Epigenetic processes during early brain development can function as 'developmental switches' that contribute to the stability of long-term effects of early environmental influences by programming central feedback mechanisms of the HPA axis and other neural networks. In this thematic review, we summarize accumulated evidence for a dual-activation of stress-related and sensory networks underlying the epigenetic programming effects of early life stress. We discuss findings indicating epigenetic programming of stress-related genes with impact on HPA axis function, the interaction of epigenetic mechanisms with neural activity in stress-related neural networks, epigenetic effects of glucocorticoid exposure, and the impact of stress on sensory development. Based on these findings, we propose that the combined activation of stress-related neural networks and stressor-specific sensory networks leads to both neural and hormonal priming of the epigenetic machinery, which sensitizes these networks for developmental programming effects. This allows stressor-specific adaptations later in life, but may also lead to functional mal-adaptations, depending on timing and intensity of the stressor. Finally, we discuss methodological and clinical implications of the dual-activation hypothesis. We emphasize that, in addition to modifications in stress-related networks, we need to account for functional modifications in sensory networks and their epigenetic underpinnings to elucidate the long-term effects of early life stress.
Keywords: Bdnf; Critical period; HPA axis; Mecp2; Neuroepigenetics; Sensory development.