Prenatal adverse environments, such as maternal stress, toxicological exposures, and viral infections, can disrupt normal brain development and contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and autism. Increasing evidence shows that these short- and long-term effects of prenatal exposures on brain structure and function are mediated by epigenetic mechanisms. Animal studies demonstrate that prenatal exposure to stress, toxins, viral mimetics, and drugs induces lasting epigenetic changes in the brain, including genes encoding glucocorticoid receptor (Nr3c1)
and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (Bdnf
). These epigenetic changes have been linked to changes in brain gene expression, stress reactivity, and behavior, and often times, these effects are shown to be dependent on the gestational window of exposure, sex, and exposure level. Although evidence from human studies is more limited, gestational exposure to environmental risks in humans is associated with epigenetic changes in peripheral tissues, and future studies are required to understand whether we can use peripheral biomarkers to predict neurobehavioral outcomes. An extensive research effort combining well-designed human and animal studies, with comprehensive epigenomic analyses of peripheral and brain tissues over time, will be necessary to improve our understanding of the epigenetic basis of neurodevelopmental disorders.
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