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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Genet. | doi: 10.3389/fgene.2019.00269

Does prenatal stress shape postnatal resilience? – An epigenome-wide study on violence and mental health in humans.

  • 1Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology, Department of Psychology, Universität Konstanz, Germany
  • 2Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Department of Psychology, Bielefeld University, Germany
  • 3Division of Molecular Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, Universität Basel, Switzerland
  • 4Latin-American Center for Studies on Violence and Health, National School of Public Health, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz), Brazil
  • 5Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Linköping University, Sweden
  • 6Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience, Linköping University, Sweden

Stress during pregnancy widely associates with epigenetic changes and psychiatric problems during childhood. Animal studies, however, show that under specific postnatal conditions prenatal stress may have other, less detrimental consequences for the offspring. Here we studied mental health and epigenome-wide DNA methylation in saliva following intimate partner violence (IPV) during pregnancy in São Gonçalo, a Brazilian city with high levels of violence. Not surprisingly, mothers exposed to pregnancy IPV expressed elevated depression, PTSD and anxiety symptoms. Children had similar psychiatric problems when they experienced maternal IPV after being born. More surprisingly, when maternal IPV occurred both during (prenatal) and after pregnancy these problems were absent. Following prenatal IPV, genomic sites in genes encoding the glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1) and its repressor FKBP51 (FKBP5) were among the most differentially methylated and indicated an enhanced ability to terminate hormonal stress responses in prenatally stressed children. These children also showed more DNA methylation in heterochromatin-like regions, which previously has been associated with stress/disease resilience. A similar relationship was seen in prenatally stressed middle-eastern refugees of the same age as the São Gonçalo children but exposed to postnatal war-related violence. While our study is limited in location and sample size, it provides novel insights on how prenatal stress may epigenetically shape resilience in humans, possibly through interactions with the postnatal environment. This translates animal findings and emphasizes the importance to account for population differences when studying how early life gene-environment interactions affects mental health.

Keywords: prenatal stress, Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), glucocorticoid receptor NR3C1, FKBP5 DNA methylation, Psychiatric resilience, Epigenetics (methylation/demethylation), retrotransposons, Heterochromatin, Developmental origin of adult health and diseases, predictive adaptive response

Received: 18 Sep 2018; Accepted: 12 Mar 2019.

Edited by:

Ryan Yuen, Hospital for Sick Children, Canada

Reviewed by:

Hehuang Xie, Virginia Tech, United States
Connie J. Mulligan, University of Florida, United States  

Copyright: © 2019 Serpeloni, Radtke, Hecker, Sill, Vukojevic, Assis, Schauer, Elbert and Nätt. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Daniel Nätt, Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Linköping University, Linköping, 581 83, Östergötland, Sweden,