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Sex differences in the programming effects of prenatal stress on psychopathology and stress responses: an evolutionary perspective

Glover, V. and Hill, J. (2012) Sex differences in the programming effects of prenatal stress on psychopathology and stress responses: an evolutionary perspective. Physiology and Behavior, 106 (5). pp. 736-740. ISSN 1873-507X

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.02.011

Abstract/Summary

There is strong evidence from animal studies that prenatal stress has different effects on male and female offspring. In general, although not always, prenatal stress increases anxiety, depression and stress responses, both hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal and cardiovascular, in female offspring rather than in male. Males are more likely to show learning and memory deficits. There have been few studies so far in humans which differentiate effects of prenatal stress on male and female psychopathology. Some studies support the animal models, but the evidence is inconsistent. The mediating mechanisms for any sex specific effects are little understood, but there is evidence that placental function can differ depending on the sex of the fetus. We suggest that there may be an evolutionary reason for any sex differences in the long term effects of prenatal stress. In a stressful environment it may be adaptive for females, who are more likely to stay in one place and look after children, to be more vigilant, alert to danger and thus show more stress responsiveness. This can give rise to a more anxious or depressed phenotype. With males it may be more adaptive to go out and explore new environments, compete with other males, and be more aggressive. For this it may help to be less responsive to external stressors. More research is needed into sex differences in the effects of prenatal stress in humans, to test these ideas.

Item Type:Article
Refereed:Yes
Divisions:Faculty of Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Department of Psychology
Faculty of Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Psychopathology and Affective Neuroscience
ID Code:41759
Publisher:Elsevier

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