Effects of prenatal stress passed across generations in mice

August 17, 2011

Sons of male mice exposed to prenatal stress are more sensitive to stress as adults, according to a study in the August 17 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. These findings suggest experiences in the womb can lead to individual differences in stress response that may be passed across generations.

Tracy Bale, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues previously found that male mice were sensitive to stress their mothers experienced during pregnancy. In the current study Bale, together with Chris Morgan, also of the University of Pennsylvania, bred those stress-sensitive males with normal to see if the heightened stress response could be transmitted to the of mice. Even though the male offspring had no additional exposure to stress in the womb, they displayed a more pronounced reaction to stress, just like their fathers.

"This study shows that the effects of maternal stress in mice are passed by the sons to the grandsons of the stressed mothers," said Arthur Arnold, PhD, an expert on sex differences in the brain at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Since male mice are not involved in rearing the offspring in the lab setting, the findings suggest that the transmission of the trait from son to grandson is through the son's DNA," added Arnold, who was unaffiliated with the study.

In general, tend to respond more to stress than do males. However, in the current study, the sons and grandsons of female mice that were stressed while pregnant showed a more similar to female mice.

Compared with other male mice, the stress-sensitive grandsons also had smaller testes, as did their fathers, suggesting they were exposed to less around birth — a critical period for establishing sex differences in the brain. Additionally, genes involved in brain development were turned on and off in a pattern more similar to female than male mice.

"Together these findings suggest prenatal stress may disrupt masculinization of the developing mouse brain," Bale said. Although such changes did not deter the stress-sensitive male mice from reproducing, the results suggest exposure to during early pregnancy can lead to long-term changes in offspring that can be passed across generations.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.