Mechanisms Linking In Utero Stress to Altered Offspring Behaviour

  • Theresia H. Mina
  • Rebecca M. ReynoldsEmail author
Part of the Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences book series (CTBN, volume 18)


Development in utero is recognised as a determinant of health in later life, a concept known as early life ‘programming’. Several studies in humans have now shown a link between in utero stressors of maternal stress, anxiety and depression and adverse behavioural outcomes for the offspring including poorer cognitive function and behavioural and emotional problems. These behaviours are observed from the very early neonatal period and appear to persist through to adulthood. Underlying mechanisms are not known but overexposure of the developing foetus to glucocorticoids has been proposed. Dysregulation of the maternal and offspring hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis has been proposed as a mechanism linking in utero stress with offspring behavioural outcomes. Studies suggest that altered circulating levels of maternal cortisol during pregnancy and/or changes in placental gene expression or methylation, which result in increased glucocorticoid transfer to the developing foetus, are linked to changes in offspring behaviour and in activity of the offspring HPA axis. Further understanding of the underlying pathways and identification of any gestation of vulnerability are needed to help design interventions to reduce in utero stress and improve behavioural outcomes in the offspring.


Stress Behaviour Cortisol 11 beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase Glucocorticoid receptor 



We acknowledge the support of the British Heart Foundation and Tommys. THM is supported by a University of Edinburgh Principal’s Award and Charles Darwin Fellowship.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Endocrinology UnitQueen’s Medical Research Institute, University/British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiovascular ScienceEdinburghUK

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