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Scientific Reports


Prenatal exposure to maternal stress is commonly associated with variation in Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA)-axis functioning in ofspring. 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-efects models. We found a positive overall efect of prenatal stress on ofspring 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 efect size. Experimental studies (d’=0.64) produced stronger efects than observational ones (d’=−0.01), while prenatal stress afected glucocorticoid recovery following ofspring stress exposure more strongly (d’=0.75) than baseline levels (d’=0.48) or glucocorticoid peak response (d’=0.36). These fndings 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 efects may therefore be especially important for mediating intra-specifc life-history variation. In addition, these fndings suggest that animal models of prenatal HPA-axis programming may be appropriate for studying similar efects in humans.




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