BACKGROUND: The BDNF gene codes for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a growth factor involved in neural development, cell differentiation, and synaptic plasticity. Present in both the brain and periphery, BDNF plays critical roles throughout the body and is essential for placental and fetal development. Rodent studies show that early life stress, including prenatal stress, broadly alters BDNF methylation, with presumed changes in gene expression. No studies have assessed prenatal exposure to maternal traumatic stress and BDNF methylation in humans. This study examined associations of prenatal exposure to maternal stress and BDNF methylation at CpG sites across the BDNF gene.
RESULTS: Among 24 mothers and newborns in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a region with extreme conflict and violence to women, maternal experiences of war trauma and chronic stress were associated with BDNF methylation in umbilical cord blood, placental tissue, and maternal venous blood. Associations of maternal stress and BDNF methylation showed high tissue specificity. The majority of significant associations were observed in putative transcription factor binding regions.
CONCLUSIONS: This is the first study in humans to examine BDNF methylation in relation to prenatal exposure to maternal stress in three tissues simultaneously and the first in any mammalian species to report associations of prenatal stress and BDNF methylation in placental tissue. The findings add to the growing body of evidence highlighting the importance of considering epigenetic effects when examining the impacts of trauma and stress, not only for adults but also for offspring exposed via effects transmitted before birth.
- Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor/blood
- DNA Methylation
- Fetal Blood/chemistry
- Genetic Association Studies
- Infant, Newborn
- Maternal Exposure
- Organ Specificity
- Psychological Trauma
- War Exposure