Impact of Prenatal Stress on Offspring Glucocorticoid Levels: a Phylogenetic Meta-Analysis Across 14 Vertebrate Species

Zaneta M. Thayer, Dartmouth College
Meredith A. Wilson, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Andrew W. Kim, Northwestern University
Adrian V. Jaeggi, Emory University


Prenatal exposure to maternal stress is commonly associated with variation in Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA)-axis functioning in offspring. However, the strength or consistency of this response has never been empirically evaluated across vertebrate species. Here we meta-analyzed 114 results from 39 studies across 14 vertebrate species using Bayesian phylogenetic mixed-effects models. We found a positive overall effect of prenatal stress on offspring glucocorticoids (d’ = 0.43) though the 95% Highest Posterior Density Interval overlapped with 0 (−0.16–0.95). Meta-regressions of potential moderators highlighted that phylogeny and life history variables predicted relatively little variation in effect size. Experimental studies (d’ = 0.64) produced stronger effects than observational ones (d’ = −0.01), while prenatal stress affected glucocorticoid recovery following offspring stress exposure more strongly (d’ = 0.75) than baseline levels (d’ = 0.48) or glucocorticoid peak response (d’ = 0.36). These findings are consistent with the argument that HPA-axis sensitivity to prenatal stress is evolutionarily ancient and occurs regardless of a species’ overall life history strategy. These effects may therefore be especially important for mediating intra-specific life-history variation. In addition, these findings suggest that animal models of prenatal HPA-axis programming may be appropriate for studying similar effects in humans.