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CHE Fertility and Reproductive Health call: Stress as an Endocrine Disruptor: Maternal Psychosocial Stress During Pregnancy and Fetal Development

Jun 6, 2013

Stress during pregnancy has long been considered detrimental to the developing fetus. New data supports the idea that psychosocial stress in utero affects fetal development. This call examined current research on prenatal stress in relation to neurodevelopment and reproductive development, discussed how stress may alter endocrine function, and presented data from recent studies that illustrate these concepts.

Dr. Tracy Bale provided a brief overview of the literature on maternal stress and neurodevelopment of offspring in rodent models. Her most recent study uses a genome-wide array approach to screen placental tissue for gene candidates that are sex-biased and stress-responsive in mice, in order to translate the information to humans. Dr. Bale described study results identifying the OGT gene as a promising placental biomarker of maternal stress exposure that may relate to sex-biased outcomes in neurodevelopment.

Dr. Shanna Swan has done extensive research on a measurement of male reproductive development: anogenital distance (AGD). Changes in this physiological measurement have previously been associated with exposure to phthalates and other endocrine disruptors.  Dr. Swan is the senior author, and Dr. Emily Barrett the primary author, of a new study entitled “Prenatal exposure to stressful life events is associated with masculinized anogenital distance (AGD) in female infants.” The co-authors discussed the findings from their study, and implications for considering stress as an endocrine disruptor.

Featured speakers included:

Tracy Bale, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Animal Biology and Psychiatry, and the Director of the Neuroscience Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on developing mouse models of increased stress sensitivity related to sex-biased neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric diseases. Because women present with affective disorders at more than twice the rate of men, Dr. Bale’s research aims at defining sex differences in stress pathway development and maturation.  Studies within Dr. Bale’s lab investigate the timing and sex specificity of early life events promoting disease susceptibility, the maturation of central stress pathways during key periods of development, and the epigenetic mechanisms involved in long-term effects following stress exposure.


Shanna Swan, PhD, is the Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Preventive Medicine  at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Dr. Swan previously served as Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Professor in Environmental Medicine, and Director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Since 1998, Dr. Swan has served as Principal Investigator of the “Study for Future Families”, a multi-center pregnancy cohort study that examines the environmental causes of geographic variation in reproductive health endpoints. Dr. Swan's has published over 150 papers on the impact of environmental exposures on male and female reproductive health.



Emily Barrett, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, School of Medicine and Dentistry. A trained biological anthropologist and scholar in the University of Rochester’s Women’s Health and the Environment over the Entire Lifespan (WHEEL) program, Dr. Barrett’s research focuses on how ecological factors, including prenatal environment, contribute to variation in reproductive function. Dr. Barrett recently expanded her work to examine how prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals and stress can shape subsequent sexually dimorphic reproductive development.




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