A major question in the biology of stress and environmental adaptation concerns the neurobiological basis of how neuroendocrine systems governing physiological regulatory mechanisms essential for life (metabolism, immune response, organ function) become harmful. The current view is that a switch from protection to damage occurs when vulnerable phenotypes are exposed to adverse environmental conditions. In accordance with this theory, sequelae of early life social and environmental stressors, such as childhood abuse, neglect, poverty, and poor nutrition, have been associated with the emergence of mental and physical illness (i.e., anxiety, mood disorders, poor impulse control, psychosis, and drug abuse) and an increased risk of common metabolic and cardiovascular diseases later in life. Evidence from animal and human studies investigating the associations between early life experiences (including parent-infant bonding), hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis activity, brain development, and health outcome provide important clues into the neurobiological mechanisms that mediate the contribution of stressful experiences to personality development and the manifestation of illness. This review summarizes our current molecular understanding of how early environment influences brain development in a manner that persists through life and highlights recent evidence from rodent studies suggesting that maternal care in the first week of postnatal life establishes diverse and stable phenotypes in the offspring through epigenetic modification of genes expressed in the brain that shape neuroendocrine and behavioral stress responsivity throughout life. Birth Defects Research (Part C) 87:314–326, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.