media release

New research findings could explain why prenatal stress exposure increases vulnerability to stress later in life.

Pregnant women who experience stress, such as depression or anxiety, could be passing along a genetic marker for stress to their unborn fetus. New research findings may help identify high-risk individuals, and develop ways to prevent disease.

August 19, 2019
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Contact:
Nadine Provençal, Faculty of Health Sciences and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, 778.782.5171; nadine_provencal@sfu.ca
Braden McMillan, University Communications and Marketing, 778.782.3210; bradenm@sfu.ca 

Link to study:  http://i.sfu.ca/tnojcC  


Simon Fraser University assistant professor Nadine Provençal and researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Germany have identified a “cellular memory” that could help explain how fetal exposure to stress during pregnancy affects how we respond to stress exposure later in life.

“The prenatal period is one of the most dynamic and sensitive periods in a person's life,” says Provençal.  “Prenatal stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy not only impacts the mother’s health but can also impact her developing fetus. Our research demonstrates an association between the epigenetic mark, or cellular memory, and an increased response to stress hormones, which could help to explain why some individuals are more vulnerable to stress later in life.”

Provençal and a team of researchers from around the world exposed human neurons to high levels of stress hormones, comparable to that experienced by the fetal brain during incidents of prenatal stress. The researchers observed that the developing neurons exposed to stress hormones had epigenetic marks on their genes that remained even after the stress hormones were removed. Interestingly, these epigenetic modifications also appear to act as a form of “cellular memory,” causing the mature neurons to be even more responsive to future stress.

To translate their findings from the lab to the cells of living people, the researchers studied the umbilical cord blood cells of newborns exposed to maternal stress, including maternal depression and anxiety, as well as stress hormone analogues administered to women with a risk of premature delivery. They observed a significant overlap between the epigenetic marks in neurons and those observed in the newborns’ genes exposed to maternal stress – findings that supported their earlier discovery.

Together, these findings demonstrate how prenatal stress could not only alter neurodevelopmental trajectories but also impact individual stress responses later in life. This knowledge can inform researchers about the possible long-term impact of early environmental stress exposure and help develop new ways to prevent the development of disease or mental illness earlier in life in individuals at high risk.

Nadine is available to speak more about this research and can be reached at nadine_provencal@sfu.ca.

 

About Simon Fraser University:

As Canada's engaged university, SFU is defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research and far-reaching community engagement. SFU was founded more than 50 years ago with a mission to be a different kind of university—to bring an interdisciplinary approach to learning, embrace bold initiatives, and engage with communities near and far. Today, SFU is Canada’s leading comprehensive research university and is ranked one of the top universities in the world. With campuses in British Columbia’s three largest cities – Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey – SFU has eight faculties, delivers almost 150 programs to over 35,000 students, and boasts more than 155,000 alumni in 143 countries around the world. 


Simon Fraser University: Engaging Students. Engaging Research. Engaging Communities.

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