Maternal pro-inflammatory state during pregnancy and newborn leukocyte telomere length: A prospective investigation

Brain Behav Immun. 2019 Aug;80:419-426. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2019.04.021. Epub 2019 Apr 8.


Introduction: Telomere biology plays a fundamental role in maintaining the integrity of the genome and cell, and shortened telomeres have been linked to several age-related diseases. The initial (newborn) telomere length (TL) represents a critically important feature of the telomere biology system. Exposure to a variety of adverse prenatal conditions such as maternal stress, suboptimal diet, obesity, and obstetric complications, is associated with shorter offspring TL at birth and in adult life. Many, if not all, of these exposures are believed to have an inflammatory component. In this context, stress-related immunological processes during pregnancy may constitute a potential additional biological pathway because they can affect telomere length and telomerase activity via transcriptions factors such as cyclic adenosine monophosphate-dependent transcription factor (ATF7) and nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-κB). Thus, in the present study we examined the hypothesis that maternal pro-inflammatory state across pregnancy, operationalized as the balance between tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α, a major pro-inflammatory cytokine, and interleukin-10 (IL-10), the major anti-inflammatory cytokine, is associated with newborn leukocyte telomere length (LTL) at birth.

Methods and materials: Participants were healthy women (N = 112) recruited in early pregnancy. Concentrations of TNF- α and IL-10 were quantified in early, mid and late pregnancy from maternal blood samples. Telomere length was assessed in newborn blood samples soon after birth.

Results: After adjusting for maternal age, maternal pre-pregnancy BMI, birth weight percentile, and infant sex, a higher mean TNF-α/IL-10 ratio across pregnancy was significantly associated with shorter newborn TL (β = -.205, p = .030). Newborn TL was, on average, 10% shorter in offspring of women in the upper compared to lower quartile of the TNF-α/IL-10 ratio during pregnancy.

Discussion: These findings provide new evidence in humans for a potential "programming" mechanism linking maternal systemic pro-inflammatory processes during pregnancy with the initial (newborn) setting of her offspring's telomere system.

Keywords: Cytokines; Developmental programming; Disease susceptibility; Pregnancy; Pro-inflammatory ratio; Telomeres.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Inflammation / blood*
  • Inflammation / complications
  • Inflammation / immunology*
  • Interleukin-10 / blood
  • Leukocytes / immunology*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / blood*
  • Pregnancy Complications / immunology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Telomere / immunology*
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / blood
  • Young Adult


  • IL10 protein, human
  • TNF protein, human
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Interleukin-10