The role of prenatal stress in the etiology of developmental behavioural disorders

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284 Scopus citations


Substantial evidence from preclinical laboratory studies indicates that prenatal stress (PS) affects the hormonal and behavioural development of offspring. In the following review, the effects of PS in rodents and non-human primates on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) reactivity to stress, morphological changes in the brain, motor behaviour and learning are surveyed. PS has been found to alter baseline and stress-induced responsivity of the HPA axis and levels and distribution of regulatory neurotransmitters, such as norepinepherine, dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine and to modify key limbic structures. In rodents and non-human primates, PS affected learning, anxiety and social behaviour. The relevance of these findings to humans is discussed with respect to (a) the effect of administration of exogenous corticosteroids in pregnancy and (b) maternal state and trait anxiety during gestation and its relation to foetal autonomic regulation as putative predisposing factors in the pathogenesis of behavioural developmental delays in children.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)457-470
Number of pages14
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2002


  • Attention deficits
  • Corticosteroids
  • Emotional reactivity
  • Foetal heart rate variability
  • Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis
  • Learning
  • Locomotion
  • Prenatal stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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