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Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2005 Feb;29(1):39-49. Epub 2004 Dec 9.

Prenatal origins of individual variation in behavior and immunity.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, University of Wisconsin, 22 North Charter, Madison, WI 53715, USA.


The in utero environment plays a critical role in initiating the normal ontogeny of many physiological systems. As a consequence, disturbances during prenatal life can affect the baby's maturational trajectory and sometimes cause chronic alterations that influence health postpartum. Our review summarizes a series of studies in rhesus monkeys supporting these conclusions. Psychological disturbance or pharmacological stimulation of the gravid female's pituitary-adrenal axis affected the infant's neurological development: monkeys evinced immature neuromotor reflexes at birth, greater emotionality during the first year of life, and a smaller hippocampus as juveniles. Immune responses of the infants were also affected: lymphocyte proliferation, natural killer activity and cytokine production were reduced. Several mediating pathways were implicated, including the placental transfer of hormones and nutrients, and a differential response of the infant monkey to the rearing environment. For example, the establishment of beneficial types of microflora in the gastrointestinal tract was significantly reduced, which was associated with a greater risk for enteric infection. These findings indicate that events during fetal life can persistently influence physiology after birth and tilt the balance away from health and toward illness.

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