The developmental origin of the health and disease hypothesis is based on the premise that many chronic diseases have their roots in fetal development. Specifically, maternal stress during pregnancy is associated with altered fetal development and many adverse long-term health outcomes. Although the mechanisms underlying this effect are currently unclear, at the cellular level 1 possible mediator is the regulation of telomere length. Telomere dynamics appear to play a role in disease progression, and an adverse intrauterine environment may contribute in the establishment of short telomeres in newborns. In accordance with this, it was recently reported that prenatal stress is significantly associated with shorter mean newborn telomere length. However, this finding has yet to be replicated, and currently we know nothing about whether different size classes of telomeres within the telomere length distribution are differentially affected by prenatal stress. Examining telomere length frequency distributions is important, because the shortest telomeres in the distribution appear to be the most indicative of telomere dysfunction and thus the best predictors of mortality and morbidity in humans.
We investigated the effects of intrauterine exposure to maternal stress over the whole course of gestation on newborn mean telomere length and telomere length frequency distributions.
We conducted a prospective cohort study of 24 mother-newborn dyads at an urban teaching hospital. Pregnant women with nonanomalous, uncomplicated pregnancies were recruited and assessed in the third trimester of gestation. Maternal psychosocial stress was quantified using the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale and categorized as high stress (≥300 points) or low stress (≤299 points) exposure. Newborn telomere length was measured from cord blood at delivery using the Telomere Restriction Fragment assay.
We found a significant negative association between maternal stress and newborn telomere length (β = -0.463, P = 0.04). Newborns whose mothers experienced a high level of stress during pregnancy had significantly shorter telomere length (6.98 ± 0.41 kb) compared to newborns of mothers with low stress (8.74 ± 0.24 kb; t = -3.99, P = .003). Moreover, the difference in newborn telomere length between high-stress and low-stress mothers was due to a shift in the telomere length distribution, with the high-stress group showing an underrepresentation of longer telomeres and an over-representation of shorter telomeres.
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Our findings replicate those of other recent studies and also show, for the first time, that the prenatal stress-associated difference in newborn mean telomere length is due to a shift in the overall telomere distribution.