Stress during pregnancy may increase anxious and depressive-like behaviours in female offspring at the age of two.
The study published in Biological Psychiatry found that high maternal cortisol, the stress hormone, had a negative impact on brain regions important for sensory and emotion processing.
“Many mood and anxiety disorders are approximately twice as common in females as in males,” said John Krystal, MD, editor of Biological Psychiatry.
“This paper highlights one unexpected sex-specific risk factor for mood and anxiety disorders in females.
“High maternal levels of cortisol during pregnancy appear to contribute to risk in females, but not males.”
Male offspring of mothers with high cortisol during pregnancy did not show an association between maternal cortisol and mood symptoms.
The findings show a potential pathway through which the prenatal environment may predispose females to develop mood disorders.
This could be an early point at which the risk for common psychiatric disorders begins to differ in males and females.
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