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Biol Psychol. 2006 Jul;73(1):72-89. Epub 2006 Feb 28.

Maternal programming of defensive responses through sustained effects on gene expression.

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  • 1McGill Program for the Study of Behavior, Genes and Environment, McGill University, Canada.


There are profound maternal effects on individual differences in defensive responses and reproductive strategies in species ranging literally from plants to insects to birds. Maternal effects commonly reflect the quality of the environment and are most likely mediated by the quality of the maternal provision (egg, propagule, etc.), which in turn determines growth rates and adult phenotype. In this paper we review data from the rat that suggest comparable forms of maternal effects on defensive responses stress, which are mediated by the effects of variations in maternal behavior on gene expression. Under conditions of environmental adversity maternal effects enhance the capacity for defensive responses in the offspring. In mammals, these effects appear to 'program' emotional, cognitive and endocrine systems towards increased sensitivity to adversity. In environments with an increased level of adversity, such effects can be considered adaptive, enhancing the probability of offspring survival to sexual maturity; the cost is that of an increased risk for multiple forms of pathology in later life.

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