Effects of Prenatal Stress on Child Brain Development - Implications for Later Mental Health


University of Turku, Turku, Finland


Accumulating evidence consistently shows that early life stress (ELS) sets in motion irreversible trajectories by influencing the psychobiological programming of the developing brain with serious negative health consequences persisting to adulthood. It has been clearly shown that ELS is a risk factor for various physical and psychiatric illnesses. In fact, epidemiological data suggest that 32% of all psychiatric disorders and 44% of childhood-onset disorders are explained by the effects of ELS. Stress taking place before birth, i.e. maternal stress in the prenatal period, reportedly also affects fetal central nervous system development. However, not all infants exposed to early stress have negative consequences as it may be, that in some developmental stages and some individuals, moderate stress exposure increases resilience.

In 2010, we established a unique and genuinely multidisciplinary pregnancy cohort, the FinnBrain Birth Cohort Study (www.finnbrain.fi) in order to study child brain developmental trajectories, long-term health effects of prenatal and early life stress exposure, and the relevant biological mechanisms. Now we have successfully collected the baseline sample of over 4000 families (comprising nearly 11,000 individuals) and performed repeated assessments (multimodal brain imaging, collection of biological samples, neuropsychological assessments, questionnaires) during pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood and the follow-up of the Cohort has been planned to continue for several decades. In this presentation I will talk about what is known about the effects of early stress on brain development, present some findings from the FinnBrain study and discuss their implications for later mental health.