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Prenatal stress and the developing brain: Risks for neurodevelopmental disorders

  • Bea R. H. Van den Bergh (a1) (a2), Robert Dahnke (a3) and Maarten Mennes (a4)
  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.

Abstract

The prenatal period is increasingly considered as a crucial target for the primary prevention of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. Understanding their pathophysiological mechanisms remains a great challenge. Our review reveals new insights from prenatal brain development research, involving (epi)genetic research, neuroscience, recent imaging techniques, physical modeling, and computational simulation studies. Studies examining the effect of prenatal exposure to maternal distress on offspring brain development, using brain imaging techniques, reveal effects at birth and up into adulthood. Structural and functional changes are observed in several brain regions including the prefrontal, parietal, and temporal lobes, as well as the cerebellum, hippocampus, and amygdala. Furthermore, alterations are seen in functional connectivity of amygdalar–thalamus networks and in intrinsic brain networks, including default mode and attentional networks. The observed changes underlie offspring behavioral, cognitive, emotional development, and susceptibility to neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. It is concluded that used brain measures have not yet been validated with regard to sensitivity, specificity, accuracy, or robustness in predicting neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. Therefore, more prospective long-term longitudinal follow-up studies starting early in pregnancy should be carried out, in order to examine brain developmental measures as mediators in mediating the link between prenatal stress and offspring behavioral, cognitive, and emotional problems and susceptibility for disorders.

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Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Bea R. H. Van den Bergh, Health Psychology, KU Leuven, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium; E-mail: Bea.vandenbergh@kuleuven.be.

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This research was supported by funding from EU FP7/Health.2011.2.22-2 and GA2798219 (to B.v.d.B.).

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