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Arch Womens Ment Health. 2008 Dec;11(5-6):363-75. doi: 10.1007/s00737-008-0035-4. Epub 2008 Oct 31.

Effects of maternal prenatal stress on offspring development: a commentary.

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Women's Health Concerns Clinic, St Joseph's Healthcare, Hamilton, ON, Canada.


Pregnancy is associated with major physiological changes and adaptation to these changes is crucial for normal fetal development. Heightened emotional stress during pregnancy may interfere with the necessary adaptation and lead to dysregulation of the two major stress response systems: the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Negative effects on the fetus of such maladaptation have been documented in both animals and humans and range from poor birth outcomes to negative impacts on neurodevelopment, as well as long term emotional and behavioural disturbances. Conversely, it has been hypothesized that low levels of maternal prenatal stress may actually have an adaptive value for the offspring. Investigation of these associations employing physiological markers and repeated measures throughout pregnancy and postpartum of both the mother and the offspring, is required in order to understand the various effects of prenatal stress on the development of the offspring. It is also crucial to explore the possibility of variable periods of vulnerability throughout gestation. The aim of this commentary is to reexamine the current literature on the ill-effects of maternal stress during pregnancy on the offspring and to explore avenues for future treatment and prevention.

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