Prenatal stress in fathers can harm offspring

While it is well documented that the health of expectant mothers can have a corresponding effect on their children, a new University of Lethbridge (U of L) study has found that prenatal stresses fathers face can have a detrimental impact on their offspring.

The study, conducted at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience at the U of L and recently published in the journal Neuroscience, found that male rats stressed prior to conception produce developmentally delayed offspring.

Dr. Robbin Gibb says the finding could have major implications for public health approaches in human populations.

“For the longest time we really only gave thought to what happened to a baby while it was being carried by the mother. Certainly what happens before conception really matters as well,” says Gibb. “Parents who are trying to conceive should feel empowered. There is much that is in their control to ensure their children’s potential.”

“We have now studied positive (enrichment) and negative (stress) preconception experiences of fathers and both have an impact on the developing brain. It appears that preconception experiences alter the expression of the DNA contained in sperm – particularly those containing the Y chromosome.”

Male rats were stressed for 27 consecutive days before being mated with female control rats. Offspring were tested with behavioural protocols starting at nine days. Pups sired by stressed fathers performed significantly poorer than pups from controlled group fathers not subjected to stress.

While both male and female offspring from stressed fathers were behaviourally-delayed, male pups were increasingly affected.

“Male offspring showed a more dramatic effect of father experience than did females. This was observed in behavioural and anatomical measures,” says Gibb.

In addition to measuring the behavioural effects of the affected pups, Gibb says significant physical changes to the pups brains were noted as well. “DNA methylation increased in the hippocampus of both male and female offspring whereas a decrease was observed in the frontal cortex of females only. Simply put, the preconception experiences of the father alter the expression of genes and proteins that are produced in the offspring. This affects the manner in which the brain develops and the behaviour of the offspring as well.”

Male offspring of fathers stressed in the preconception period had reduced thickness in prefrontal cortex as well.

The abstract of the Neuroscience journal article can be found here.

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