Maternal Stress Alters Placenta, Slows Fetal Neurobehavioral Development

July 5, 2016

 Findings could explain higher risk of childhood mental disorders

New York, NY (July 5, 2016)—A study from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), NewYork-Presbyterian, and New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) suggests that maternal stress during pregnancy causes changes in the placenta that may increase a child’s risk for behavioral and emotional problems.

The findings, published in American Journal of Psychiatry, reveal how maternal stress can trigger biological events that may adversely affect fetal brain development.

Previous research has linked maternal stress to increased risk of mental health disorders in children. Shared genes that predispose to mental health disorders may explain the connection, but researchers have hypothesized that stress experienced by pregnant women may also cause changes in the developing fetus that contribute to the higher risk.

The study, which included 61 healthy pregnant women, measured the effect of maternal stress on the activity of genes in the placenta called HSDB11B2, FKPP5, and NR3C1. These genes reduce the impact of the stress hormone cortisol on the developing fetus. Elevated in utero cortisol levels have been previously linked to increased emotionality and impaired learning and motor development in children. The researchers also evaluated the coordination of fetal heart rate and movement, a behavior known as fetal coupling that is an index of fetal brain development, during the women’s third trimester of pregnancy.

The researchers found that mothers who reported higher stress levels during pregnancy had  increased DNA methylation in HSDB11B2—a process that dampens gene activity and increases in utero cortisol levels. The study also revealed significantly less fetal coupling in mothers with increased methylation in HSDB11B2.

The study did not follow the children after birth to determine if they developed mental health disorders.

“This study provides evidence that maternal stress, which can trigger biological changes that affect brain development, may be another important risk factor for the development of behavioral and psychiatric disorders in children,” said Catherine Monk, PhD, associate professor of medical psychology (in Psychiatry and Obstetrics and Gynecology) at CUMC and lead author of the study. “And unlike other risk factors, such as inheriting genes that increase the risk of these disorders, maternal stress is an identifiable and modifiable risk factor.”

The US Preventive Services Task Force recently called for universal screening for depression during pregnancy—a policy that could improve the detection and treatment of depression in women and may improve outcomes in children as well.

Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of psychiatry at CUMC and director of NYSPI, noted, “this research highlights the importance of targeting mental health services at pre and postnatal care of mothers and children.”  Dr. Monk added, “Our findings suggest that it may be possible to evaluate a child’s risk for emotional and behavioral problems before birth, when there is time to do prevention work. Given the cost of mental health services, early identification and amelioration of maternal stress may be a prudent way to reduce the risk of psychiatric conditions in children.”


For Immediate Release: Contact: Rachel Yarmolinsky,, 646-774-5353

This study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) award R01MH092580; the report was previously published online in The American Journal of Psychiatry (AJP) (

Additional authors included Tianshu Feng, Seonjoo Lee, Izabela Krupska, Frances Champagne, and Benjamin Tycko.

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Department of Psychiatry  (NYSPI/Columbia Psychiatry).

New York State Psychiatric Institute (founded in 1896) and the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry have been closely affiliated since 1925. Their co-location in a New York State facility on the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center campus provides the setting for a rich and productive collaborative relationship among scientists and physicians in a variety of disciplines. NYSPI/Columbia Psychiatry is ranked among the best departments and psychiatric research facilities in the nation and has contributed greatly to the understanding of and current treatment for psychiatric disorders.  The Department and Institute are home to distinguished clinicians and researchers noted for their clinical and research advances in the diagnosis and treatment of depression, suicide, schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety disorders and childhood psychiatric disorders.  Their combined expertise provides state of the art clinical care for patients, and training for the next generation of psychiatrists and psychiatric researchers.

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, preclinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. For more information, visit or


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