Heightened maternal stress during pregnancy is associated with atypical brain development and an elevated risk for psychopathology in offspring. Supportive environments during early postnatal life may promote brain development and reverse atypical developmental trajectories induced by prenatal stress. We reviewed studies focused on the role of key early environmental factors in moderating associations between prenatal stress exposure and infant brain and neurocognitive outcomes. Specifically, we focused on the associations between parental caregiving quality, environmental enrichment, social support, and socioeconomic status with infant brain and neurocognitive outcomes. We examined the evidence that these factors may moderate the effects of prenatal stress on the developing brain. Complementing findings from translational models, human research suggests that high-quality early postnatal environments are associated with indices of infant neurodevelopment that have also been associated with prenatal stress, such as hippocampal volume and frontolimbic connectivity. Human studies also suggest that maternal sensitivity and higher socioeconomic status may attenuate the effects of prenatal stress on established neurocognitive and neuroendocrine mediators of risk for psychopathology, such as hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functioning. Biological pathways that may underlie the effects of positive early environments on the infant brain, including the epigenome, oxytocin, and inflammation, are also discussed. Future research in humans should examine resilience-promoting processes in relation to infant brain development using large sample sizes and longitudinal designs. The findings from this review could be incorporated into clinical models of risk and resilience during the perinatal period and used to design more effective early programs that reduce risk for psychopathology.
- Brain development
- Prenatal stress