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Transl Psychiatry. 2016 Nov 1;6(11):e936. doi: 10.1038/tp.2015.155.

Prenatal maternal depression is associated with offspring inflammation at 25 years: a prospective longitudinal cohort study.

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Department of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK.
School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.


Animal studies and a handful of prospective human studies have demonstrated that young offspring exposed to maternal prenatal stress show abnormalities in immune parameters and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function. No study has examined the effect of maternal prenatal depression on offspring inflammation and HPA axis activity in adulthood, nor the putative role of child maltreatment in inducing these abnormalities. High-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) and awakening cortisol were measured at age 25 in 103 young-adult offspring of the South London Child Development Study (SLCDS), a prospective longitudinal birth cohort of mother-offspring dyads recruited in pregnancy in 1986. Maternal prenatal depression was assessed in pregnancy at 20 and 36 weeks; offspring child maltreatment (birth 17 years) was assessed at offspring ages 11, 16 and 25; and offspring adulthood depression (18-25 years) was assessed at age 25. Exposure to maternal prenatal depression predicted significantly elevated offspring hs-CRP at age 25 (odds ratio=11.8, 95% confidence interval (CI) (1.1, 127.0), P=0.041), independently of child maltreatment and adulthood depression, known risk factors for adulthood inflammation. In contrast, maternal prenatal depression did not predict changes in offspring adulthood cortisol; however, offspring exposure to child maltreatment did, and was associated with elevated awakening cortisol levels (B=161.9, 95% CI (45.4, 278.4), P=0.007). Fetal exposure to maternal depression during pregnancy has effects on immune function that persist for up to a quarter of a century after birth. Findings are consistent with the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) hypothesis for the biological embedding of gestational psychosocial adversity into vulnerability for future physical and mental illness.

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