Maternal trauma and fear history predict BDNF methylation and gene expression in newborns

Stefanie R. Pilkay, Terri Combs-Orme, Frances Tylavsky, Nicole Bush, Alicia K. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Trauma and related fear exert significant influence on mental and physical health throughout the lifespan and are associated with intergenerational patterns of development, health, and behavior. DNA methylation and gene expression are involved in our developmental adaptations to our experiences and can be influenced by social interventions. Patterns of DNA methylation and expression of a gene involved in neurodevelopment and psychiatric risk (BDNF) have been linked with childhood trauma. Given the intergenerational patterns of health and behavior, and previous links between childhood trauma and BDNF methylation and expression, this study investigated the potential for maternal history of traumatic experiences to influence development in her newborn, via changes in her newborn’s BDNF methylation and expression. We found that mothers’ trauma history was associated with epigenetic regulation of BDNF in their newborns. Moreover, the association between maternal trauma and BDNF methylation and expression patterns were moderated by newborn sex. Male newborns showed increased BDNF expression with maternal exposure to child abuse (p = .001), and increased BDNF methylation with greater maternal fear (p = .001). Female newborns showed reduced BDNF expression with greater maternal fear (p = .004). Practitioners strive to identify prevention and intervention avenues that will reduce the harmful effects of trauma. Future research should consider the potential for maternal historical trauma experiences to influence offspring DNA methylation and gene expression in a manner that could alter development and inform novel prevention strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere8858
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2020


  • BDNF
  • Epigenetic
  • Fear
  • Intergenerational
  • Trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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