Sex-specific programming of offspring emotionality after stress early in pregnancy

Bridget R. Mueller, Tracy L. Bale

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

829 Scopus citations


Prenatal stress is associated with an increased vulnerability to neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and schizophrenia. To determine the critical time window when fetal antecedents may induce a disease predisposition, we examined behavioral responses in offspring exposed to stress during early, mid, and late gestation. We found that male offspring exposed to stress early in gestation displayed maladaptive behavioral stress responsivity, anhedonia, and an increased sensitivity to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor treatment. Long-term alterations in central corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and glucocorticoid receptor (GR) expression, as well as increased hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis responsivity, were present in these mice and likely contributed to an elevated stress sensitivity. Changes in CRF and GR gene methylation correlated with altered gene expression, providing important evidence of epigenetic programming during early prenatal stress. In addition, we found the core mechanism underlying male vulnerability may involve sex-specific placenta responsivity, where stress early in pregnancy significantly increased expression of PPARα (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor α), IGFBP-1 (insulin-like growth factor binding protein 1), HIF3α (hypoxia-inducible factor 3a), and GLUT4 (glucose transporter 4) in male placentas but not females. Examination of placental epigenetic machinery revealed basal sex differences, providing further evidence that sex-specific programming begins very early in pregnancy, and may contribute to the timing and vulnerability of the developing fetus to maternal perturbations. Overall, these results indicate that stress experience early in pregnancy may contribute to male neurodevelopmental disorders through impacts on placental function and fetal development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9055-9065
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number36
StatePublished - 3 Sep 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Affective disorders
  • DNA methylation
  • Depression
  • Neurodevelopment
  • Placenta
  • Prenatal stress


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