Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews

Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews (2016) 41, 232–244; doi:10.1038/npp.2015.247; published online 2 September 2015

Intergenerational Transmission of Stress in Humans

Mallory E Bowers1 and Rachel Yehuda1,2,3

  1. 1Department of Psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, NY, NY, USA
  2. 2Mental Health Care Center, James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bronx, NY, USA
  3. 3Department of Neuroscience, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount, NY, NY, USA

Correspondence: Professor R Yehuda, Department of Psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center, 526 OOMH PTSD 116/A, JJP VAMC, 130 W Kingsbridge Road, Bronx, NY 10468, USA, Tel: +718 741 4000, ext. 6964, Fax: +718 741 4703, E-mail: rachel.yehuda@va.gov

Received 1 May 2015; Revised 19 July 2015; Accepted 20 July 2015
Accepted article preview online 17 August 2015; Advance online publication 2 September 2015

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Abstract

The hypothesis that offspring are affected by parental trauma or stress exposure, first noted anecdotally, is now supported empirically by data from Holocaust survivor offspring cohorts and other populations. These findings have been extended to less extreme forms of stress, where differential physical, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes are observed in affected offspring. Parental stress-mediated effects in offspring could be explained by genetics or social learning theory. Alternatively, biological variations stemming from stress exposure in parents could more directly have an impact on offspring, a concept we refer to here as ‘intergenerational transmission’, via changes to gametes and the gestational uterine environment. We further extend this definition to include the transmission of stress to offspring via early postnatal care, as animal studies demonstrate the importance of early maternal care of pups in affecting offsprings’ long-term behavioral changes. Here, we review clinical observations in offspring, noting that offspring of stress- or trauma-exposed parents may be at greater risk for physical, behavioral, and cognitive problems, as well as psychopathology. Furthermore, we review findings concerning offspring biological correlates of parental stress, in particular, offspring neuroendocrine, epigenetic, and neuroanatomical changes, in an attempt to determine the extent of parental stress effects. Although understanding the etiology of effects in offspring is currently impeded by methodological constraints, and limitations in our knowledge, we summarize current information and conclude by presenting hypotheses that have been prompted by recent studies in the field.

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