Exploring sex differences in fetal programming for childhood emotional disorders

Megan Galbally, Stuart J. Watson, Martha Lappas, E. Ron de Kloet, Caitlin S. Wyrwoll, Peter J. Mark, Andrew J. Lewis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


In examining maternal depression, placental 11β-HSD2 mRNA expression and offspring cortisol regulation as a potential fetal programming pathway in relation to later child emotional disorders, it has become clear that sex differences may be important to consider. This study reports on data obtained from 209 participants in the Mercy Pregnancy and Emotional Wellbeing Study (MPEWS) recruited before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Maternal depressive disorders were diagnosed using the SCID-IV and maternal childhood trauma using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. Placental 11β-HSD2 mRNA was measured using qRT-PCR. For assessment of stress-induced cortisol reactivity, salivary cortisol samples were taken at 12 months of age. At 4 years of age, measurement of Childhood Emotional Disorders (depression and anxiety) was based on maternal report using the Preschool Age Psychiatric Assessment (PAPA) and internalizing symptoms using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). Maternal depression in pregnancy and postpartum, and infant cortisol reactivity, was associated with internalizing symptoms for females only. For female offspring only, increased 12-month cortisol reactivity was also associated with increased emotional disorders at 4 years of age; however, there was no association with placental 11β-HSD2 mRNA expression. In females only, the combination of lower placental 11β-HSD2 mRNA expression and higher cortisol reactivity at 12 months of age predicted increased internalising problems. These findings suggest there may be sex differences in prenatal predictors and pathways for early childhood depression and anxiety symptoms and disorder.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105764
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2022


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