Environmental exposures during pregnancy: Mechanistic effects on immunity

Birth Defects Res. 2019 Mar 1;111(4):178-196. doi: 10.1002/bdr2.1469. Epub 2019 Feb 1.


In human studies, it is well established that exposures during embryonic and fetal development periods can influence immune health. Coupled with genetic predisposition, these exposures can alter lifetime chronic and infectious disease trajectory, and, ultimately, life expectancy. Fortunately, as research advances, mechanisms governing long-term effects of prenatal exposures are coming to light and providing the opportunity for intervention and risk reduction. For instance, human association studies have provided a foundation for the association of prenatal exposure to particulate matter with early immunosuppression and later allergic disease in the offspring. Only recently, the mechanisms mediating this response have been revealed and there is much we have yet to discover. Although cellular immune response is understood for many exposure scenarios, molecular pathways are still unidentified. This review will provide commentary and synthesis of the current literature regarding environmental exposures during pregnancy and mechanisms determining immune outcomes. Shared mechanistic features and current gaps in the state of the science are identified and discussed. To such purpose, we address exposures by their immune effect type: immunosuppression, autoimmunity, inflammation and tissue damage, hypersensitivity, and general immunomodulation.

Keywords: environmental exposures; immune development; prenatal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / immunology*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Humans
  • Maternal Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Particulate Matter / adverse effects*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / immunology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / pathology


  • Particulate Matter