Maternal Distress and Offspring Neurodevelopment: Challenges and Opportunities for Pre-clinical Research Models

Front Hum Neurosci. 2021 Feb 12;15:635304. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2021.635304. eCollection 2021.


Pre-natal exposure to acute maternal trauma or chronic maternal distress can confer increased risk for psychiatric disorders in later life. Acute maternal trauma is the result of unforeseen environmental or personal catastrophes, while chronic maternal distress is associated with anxiety or depression. Animal studies investigating the effects of pre-natal stress have largely used brief stress exposures during pregnancy to identify critical periods of fetal vulnerability, a paradigm which holds face validity to acute maternal trauma in humans. While understanding these effects is undoubtably important, the literature suggests maternal stress in humans is typically chronic and persistent from pre-conception through gestation. In this review, we provide evidence to this effect and suggest a realignment of current animal models to recapitulate this chronicity. We also consider candidate mediators, moderators and mechanisms of maternal distress, and suggest a wider breadth of research is needed, along with the incorporation of advanced -omics technologies, in order to understand the neurodevelopmental etiology of psychiatric risk.

Keywords: maternal distress; neurodevelopment; pre-clinical models; pregnancy; psychiatric disorders.