Maternal Prenatal Anxiety and the Fetal Origins of Epigenetic Aging

Biol Psychiatry. 2022 Feb 1;91(3):303-312. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2021.07.025. Epub 2021 Aug 19.


Background: The fetal origins of mental health is a well-established framework that currently lacks a robust index of the biological embedding of prenatal adversity. The Pediatric-Buccal-Epigenetic (PedBE) clock is a novel epigenetic tool that associates with aspects of the prenatal environment, but additional validation in longitudinal datasets is required. Likewise, the relationship between prenatal maternal mental health and the PedBE clock has not been described.

Methods: Longitudinal cohorts from the Netherlands (Basal Influences on Baby Development [BIBO] n = 165) and Singapore (Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes [GUSTO] n = 340) provided data on prenatal maternal anxiety and longitudinal assessments of buccal cell-derived genome-wide DNA methylation assessed at 6 and 10 years of age in BIBO, and at 3, 9, and 48 months of age in GUSTO. Measures of epigenetic age acceleration were calculated using the PedBE clock and benchmarked against an established multi-tissue epigenetic predictor.

Results: Prenatal maternal anxiety predicted child PedBE epigenetic age acceleration in both cohorts, with effects largely restricted to males and not females. These results were independent of obstetric, socioeconomic, and genetic risk factors, with a larger effect size for prenatal anxiety than depression. PedBE age acceleration predicted increased externalizing symptoms in males from mid- to late childhood in the BIBO cohort only.

Conclusions: These findings point to the fetal origins of epigenetic age acceleration and reveal an increased sensitivity in males. Convergent evidence underscores the societal importance of providing timely and effective mental health support to pregnant individuals, which may have lasting consequences for both mother and child.

Keywords: Aging; Biological embedding; Epigenetic biomarker; Epigenetic clock; Fetal origins; Perinatal mental health; Prenatal stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Anxiety / genetics
  • Child
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Epigenomics*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pregnancy