Improving translational relevance: The need for combined exposure models for studying prenatal adversity

Brain Behav Immun Health. 2021 Jul 6;16:100294. doi: 10.1016/j.bbih.2021.100294. eCollection 2021 Oct.


Prenatal environmental adversity is a risk factor for neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs), with the neuroimmune environment proposed to play a role in this risk. Adverse maternal exposures are associated with cognitive consequences in the offspring that are characteristics of NDDs and simultaneous neuroimmune changes that may underlie NDD risk. In both animal models and human studies the association between prenatal environmental exposure and NDD risk has been shown to be complex. Maternal overnutrition/obesity and opioid use are two different examples of complex exposure epidemics, each with their own unique comorbidities. This review will examine maternal obesity and maternal opioid use separately, illustrating the pervasive comorbidities with each exposure to argue a need for animal models of compound prenatal exposures. Many of these comorbidities can impact neuroimmune function, warranting systematic investigation of combined exposures to begin to understand this complexity. While traditional approaches in animal models have focused on modeling a single prenatal exposure or second exposure later in life, a translational approach would begin to incorporate the most prevalent co-occurring prenatal exposures. Long term follow-up in humans is extremely challenging, so animal models can provide timely insight into neurodevelopmental consequences of complex prenatal exposures. Animal models that represent this translational context of comorbid exposures behind maternal obesity or comorbid exposures behind maternal opioid use may reveal potential synergistic neuroimmune interactions that contribute to cognitive consequences and NDD risk. Finally, translational co-exposure models can identify concerning exposure combinations to guide treatment in complex cases, and identify high risk children starting in the prenatal period where early interventions improve prognosis.

Keywords: Cognition; Microglia; Neurodevelopmental disorders; Obesity; Opioids; Prenatal.