Prenatal Stress and Development: Beyond The Single Cause and Effect Paradigm


Correspondence to: Heather J. Hamlin. E-mail:


Our awareness of the causes of stress-induced developmental dysfunction has increased dramatically over the past decade, and it is becoming increasingly clear that a number of factors can have considerable impacts on the developing fetus. Although there is a tendency in investigations of developmental teratogens to attribute specific causes to adverse fetal outcomes, it is important we recognize that for most developmental dysfunctions it is unlikely a single cause, but yet a series of environmental insults combined with genetic predisposition that ultimately leads to a disease state. Nonetheless, a number of developmental teratogens, such as maternal psychological stress and chemical exposures, have been shown to increase the likelihood of developmental defects. These defects can manifest during development, leading to observable birth defects, or could become evident long after birth, even into adulthood. In addition, epigenetic mutations in the germline can alter the phenotype of successive generations through transgenerational inheritance, and in this way environmental factors can alter the developmental outcomes and disease predispositions of future generations. Understanding this complexity is essential to interpretations of causality in the studies of stress-induced developmental dysfunction and needs to be fully considered to more effectively interpret potential outcomes. Birth Defects Research (Part C) 96:289–298, 2012. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.