The consequences of early life adversity: neurobiological, behavioural and epigenetic adaptations

Stefania Maccari, Harm J Krugers, Sara Morley-Fletcher, Moshe Szyf, Paula Brunton

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


During the perinatal period, the brain is particularly sensitive to remodelling by environmental factors. Adverse early life experiences, such as stress exposure or sub-optimal maternal care can have long-lasting detrimental consequences for an individual. This phenomenon is often referred to as ‘early-life programming’ and is associated with an increased risk of disease. Typically, rodents exposed to prenatal stress or postnatal maternal deprivation display enhanced neuroendocrine responses to stress, increased levels of anxiety and depressive-like behaviours and cognitive impairments. Some of the phenotypes observed in these models of early life adversity are likely to share common neurobiological mechanisms. For example, there is evidence for impaired glucocorticoid negative feedback control of the HPA axis, altered glutamate neurotransmission and reduced hippocampal neurogenesis in both prenatally stressed rats and rats that experienced deficient maternal care. The possible mechanisms through which maternal stress during pregnancy may be transmitted to the offspring are reviewed, with special consideration given to altered maternal behaviour postpartum. We also discuss what is known about the neurobiological and epigenetic mechanisms that underpin early life programming of the neonatal brain in the first generation and subsequent generations, with a view to abrogating programming effects and potentially identifying new therapeutic targets for the treatment of stress-related disorders and cognitive impairment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)707-723
JournalJournal of Neuroendocrinology
Issue number10
Early online date14 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Event5th Parental Brain Conference - Regensburg, Germany
Duration: 11 Jul 201314 Jul 2013


  • Cognition
  • DNA methylation
  • Hippocampus
  • HPA axis
  • maternal behaviour
  • mood disorders
  • prenatal stress


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