Prenatal Maternal Stress From a Natural Disaster and Hippocampal Volumes: Gene-by-Environment Interactions in Young Adolescents From Project Ice Storm

Front Behav Neurosci. 2021 Sep 10;15:706660. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.706660. eCollection 2021.


Gene-by-environment interactions influence brain development from conception to adulthood. In particular, the prenatal period is a window of vulnerability for the interplay between environmental and genetic factors to influence brain development. Rodent and human research demonstrates that prenatal maternal stress (PNMS) alters hippocampal volumes. Although PNMS affects hippocampal size on average, similar degrees of PNMS lead to different effects in different individuals. This differential susceptibility to the effects of PNMS may be due to genetic variants. Hence, we investigated the role of genetic variants of two SNPs that are candidates to moderate the effects of PNMS on hippocampal volume: COMT (rs4680) and BDNF (rs6265). To investigate this, we assessed 53 children who were in utero during the January 1998 Quebec ice storm. In June 1998 their mothers responded to questionnaires about their objective, cognitive, and subjective levels of stress from the ice storm. When children were 11 1/2 years old, T1-weighted structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were obtained using a 3T scanner and analyzed to determine hippocampal volumes. We collected and genotyped the children's saliva DNA. Moderation analyses were conducted to determine whether either or both of the SNPs moderate the effect of PNMS on hippocampal volumes. We found that objective hardship was associated with right hippocampal volume in girls, and that the BDNF and COMT genotypes were associated with left hippocampal volume in boys and girls. In addition, SNPs located on COMT moderated the effect of maternal objective distress in boys, and subjective distress in girls, on both right hippocampal volume. Thus, we conclude that an individual's genotype alters their susceptibility to the effects of PNMS.

Keywords: BDNF; COMT; gene-by-environment interactions; hippocampal volumes; natural disaster; prenatal maternal stress (PNMS).