Fetal origins of mental health: evidence and mechanisms

Schlotz, Wolff and Phillips, David I.W. (2009) Fetal origins of mental health: evidence and mechanisms. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 23, (7), 905-916. (doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2009.02.001).


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The concept of fetal programming states that changes in the fetal environment during sensitive periods of organ development may cause long-lasting changes in the structure and functioning of these organs later in life and influence the risk for chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Fetal growth is a summary marker of the fetal environment and is reflected by relatively easy-to-obtain measures of size at birth such as birthweight. In the last two decades, a body of evidence emerged linking fetal growth with behavioural and mental health outcomes later in life. Cognitive functioning and behavioural problems in childhood, in particular inattention/hyperactivity, have been shown to be inversely related to fetal growth. Although results are mixed, risk for personality disorders and schizophrenia seems to be linked with fetal growth and adversity, while the evidence for mood disorders is weak. Vulnerability for psychopathology may also be influenced by prenatal adversity. There is evidence for associations of fetal growth with temperament in childhood as well as stress reactivity and distress. The associations of fetal growth with mental health later in life are potentially caused by specific prenatal factors such as maternal smoking, alcohol, toxins/drugs, nutrition, psychosocial stress and infection during pregnancy. The mechanisms likely involve changes in neurodevelopment and in the set point of neuroendocrine systems, and there is evidence that prenatal adversity interacts with genetic and postnatal environmental factors. Future studies should examine the effects of specific prenatal factors and attempt to disentangle genetic and prenatal environmental effects.

Item Type: Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI): doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2009.02.001
ISSNs: 0889-1591 (print)
Related URLs:
Keywords: fetal programming, fetal origins, birthweight, fetal growth, cognitive function, schizophrenia, mood disorders, behavioural problems, temperament, stress reactivity, distress
Subjects: R Medicine > RC Internal medicine > RC0321 Neuroscience. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry
R Medicine > RG Gynecology and obstetrics
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Divisions : University Structure - Pre August 2011 > School of Psychology > Division of Human Wellbeing
ePrint ID: 65448
Accepted Date and Publication Date:
13 February 2009Published
Date Deposited: 16 Feb 2009
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2016 12:50
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/65448

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