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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Behavioral perinatology: biobehavioral processes in human fetal development.

  • Author(s): Wadhwa, Pathik D
  • Glynn, Laura
  • Hobel, Calvin J
  • Garite, Thomas J
  • Porto, Manuel
  • Chicz-DeMet, Aleksandra
  • Wiglesworth, Aileen K
  • Sandman, Curt A
  • et al.

Behavioral perinatology is as an interdisciplinary area of research that involves conceptualization of theoretical models and conduct of empirical studies of the dynamic time-, place-, and context-dependent interplay between biological and behavioral processes in fetal, neonatal, and infant life using an epigenetic framework of development. The biobehavioral processes of particular interest to our research group relate to the effects of maternal pre- and perinatal stress and maternal-placental-fetal stress physiology. We propose that behavioral perinatology research may have important implications for a better understanding of the processes that underlie or contribute to the risk of three sets of outcomes: prematurity, adverse neurodevelopment, and chronic degenerative diseases in adulthood. Based on our understanding of the ontogeny of human fetal development and the physiology of pregnancy and fetal development, we have articulated a neurobiological model of pre- and perinatal stress. Our model proposes that chronic maternal stress may exert a significant influence on fetal developmental outcomes. Maternal stress may act via one or more of three major physiological pathways: neuroendocrine, immune/inflammatory, and vascular. We further suggest that placental corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) may play a central role in coordinating the effects of endocrine, immune/inflammatory, and vascular processes on fetal developmental outcomes. Finally, we hypothesize that the effects of maternal stress are modulated by the nature, duration, and timing of occurrence of stress during gestation. In this paper, we elaborate on the conceptual and empirical basis for this model, highlight some relevant issues and questions, and make recommendations for future research in this area.

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