Maternally derived hormones, neurosteroids and the development of behaviour

James C. Mouton, Renée A. Duckworth

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


In a wide range of taxa, there is evidence that mothers adaptively shape the development of offspring behaviour by exposing them to steroids. These maternal effects have major implications for fitness because, by shaping early development, they can permanently alter how offspring interact with their environment. However, theory on parent-offspring conflict and recent physiological studies showing that embryos rapidly metabolize maternal steroids have placed doubt on the adaptive significance of these hormone-mediated maternal effects. Reconciling these disparate perspectives requires a mechanistic understanding of the pathways by which maternal steroids can influence neural development. Here, we highlight recent advances in developmental neurobiology and psychiatric pharmacology to show that maternal steroid metabolites can have direct neuro-modulatory effects potentially shaping the development of neural circuitry underlying ecologically relevant behavioural traits. The recognition that maternal steroids can act through a neurosteroid pathway has critical implications for our understanding of the ecology and evolution of steroid-based maternal effects. Overall, compared to the classic view, a neurosteroid mechanism may reduce the evolutionary lability of hormone-mediated maternal effects owing to increased pleiotropic constraints and frequently influence long-term behavioural phenotypes in offspring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20202467
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1943
StatePublished - Jan 27 2021


  • behaviour
  • development
  • maternal hormone
  • neurosteroid
  • personality
  • prenatal programming

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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