Offspring brain effects from maternal adversity

This 2021 rodent study investigated conception through weaning effects on offspring from stressing their mothers:

“We investigated consequences of two prenatal insults, prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) and food-related stress, on DNA methylation profiles of the rat brain during early development. We analyzed patterns in prefrontal cortex, a key brain region involved in cognition, executive function, and behavior, of both males and females, and found sex-dependent and sex-concordant influences of these insults.

The pair-fed (PF) group in the PAE model is a standard control for effects of alcohol in reducing food intake. However, compared to the PAE group that, albeit eating less, eats ad libitum, pair-feeding is a treatment in itself, with PF dams receiving a restricted ration, which results in both hunger and a disrupted feeding schedule. These stress-related effects could potentially parallel or model food scarcity or food insecurity in human populations.

We observed more DMRs (Differentially Methylated Regions) that showed decreased DNAm rather than increased DNAm in PF animals, suggesting that food-related stress may interfere with one-carbon metabolism and the pathways that deposit methylation on DNA. We also identified a sex-concordant DMR that showed decreased DNAm in PF animals in the glucocorticoid receptor Nr3c1, which plays a key role in stress responsivity and may reflect a reprogramming of the stress response.

This result is in line with previous studies that have shown that pair-feeding is a considerable stressor on dams, with lasting consequences on development, behavior, and physiology of their offspring. Altered DNAm of this key HPA axis gene may reflect broader alterations to stress response systems, which may in turn, influence programming of numerous physiological systems linked to the stress response, including immune function, metabolic processes, and circadian rhythms.

In PAE and PF animals compared to controls, we identified 26 biological pathways that were enriched in females, including those involved in cellular stress and metabolism, and 10 biological pathways enriched in males, which were mainly involved in metabolic processes. These findings suggest that PAE and restricted feeding, both of which act in many respects as prenatal stressors, may influence some common biological pathways, which may explain some of the occasional overlap between their resulting phenotypes.


This study highlights the complex network of neurobiological pathways that respond to prenatal adversity/stressors and that modulate differential effects of early life insults on functional and health outcomes. Study of these exposures provides a unique opportunity to investigate sex-specific effects of prenatal adversity on epigenetic patterns, as possible biological mechanisms underlying sex-specific responses to prenatal insults are understudied and remain largely unknown.” “Prenatal Adversity Alters the Epigenetic Profile of the Prefrontal Cortex: Sexually Dimorphic Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Food-Related Stress”


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