Incorporating epigenetic mechanisms to advance fetal programming theories

Elisabeth Conradt, Daniel E. Adkins, Sheila E. Crowell, K. Lee Raby, Lisa M. Diamond, Bruce Ellis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Decades of fetal programming research indicates that we may be able to map the origins of many physical, psychological, and medical variations and morbidities before the birth of the child. While great strides have been made in identifying associations between prenatal insults, such as undernutrition or psychosocial stress, and negative developmental outcomes, far less is known about how adaptive responses to adversity regulate the developing phenotype to match stressful conditions. As the application of epigenetic methods to human behavior has exploded in the last decade, research has begun to shed light on the role of epigenetic mechanisms in explaining how prenatal conditions shape later susceptibilities to mental and physical health problems. In this review, we describe and attempt to integrate two dominant fetal programming models: the cumulative stress model (a disease-focused approach) and the match-mismatch model (an evolutionary-developmental approach). In conjunction with biological sensitivity to context theory, we employ these two models to generate new hypotheses regarding epigenetic mechanisms through which prenatal and postnatal experiences program child stress reactivity and, in turn, promote development of adaptive versus maladaptive phenotypic outcomes. We conclude by outlining priority questions and future directions for the fetal programming field.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)807-824
Number of pages18
JournalDevelopment and Psychopathology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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