Schuurmans C, Kurrasch DM. Neurodevelopmental consequences of maternal distress: what do we really know?
A simple internet search of ‘maternal stress and pregnancy’ turns up hundreds of hits explaining that an adverse intrauterine environment can affect fetal development and potentially lead to various learning, behavioral, and mood disorders in childhood, as well as complex diseases such as obesity and cardiovascular conditions later in life. Indeed, a growing body of literature now links several intrauterine challenges, including maternal obesity and stress, with adverse developmental outcomes in the child. Over the past 5 years, nearly 5000 publications have explored the consequences of maternal distress on young offspring, a marked increase from the 475 published studies over a comparable period 20 years ago. Yet, despite this explosion of research and widespread warnings to pregnant mothers, we still lack a basic understanding of the pathophysiology linking adverse maternal health to the onset of disease in the child, especially regarding how prenatal and perinatal challenges might affect brain development. Recent studies have begun to explore the cellular basis of the abnormal brain cytoarchitecture associated with fetal exposure to intrauterine challenges. Here, our goal is to review the scientific evidence that maternal distress interferes with key neurodevelopmental steps, as an entry point toward mapping the pathophysiology of pre- and perinatal stress on the unborn child's brain.