Intergenerational Transmission of Maternal Childhood Maltreatment Exposure: Implications for Fetal Brain Development

Claudia Buss, Sonja Entringer, Nora K. Moog, Philipp Toepfer, Damien A. Fair, Hyagriv N. Simhan, Christine M. Heim, Pathik D. Wadhwa

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

158 Scopus citations


Objective Growing evidence suggests the deleterious consequences of exposure to childhood maltreatment (CM) not only might endure over the exposed individual's lifespan but also might be transmitted across generations. The time windows, mechanisms, and targets of such intergenerational transmission are poorly understood. The prevailing paradigm posits that mother-to-child transmission of the effects of maternal CM likely occurs after her child's birth. The authors seek to extend this paradigm and advance a transdisciplinary framework that integrates the concepts of biological embedding of life experiences and fetal origins of health and disease risk. Method The authors posit that the period of embryonic and fetal life represents a particularly sensitive time for intergenerational transmission; that the developing brain represents a target of particular interest; and that stress-sensitive maternal-placental-fetal biological (endocrine, immune) pathways represent leading candidate mechanisms of interest. Results The plausibility of this model is supported by theoretical considerations and empirical findings in humans and animals. The authors synthesize several research areas and identify important knowledge gaps that might warrant further study. Conclusion The scientific and public health relevance of this effort relates to achieving a better understanding of the “when,” “what,” and “how” of intergenerational transmission of CM, with implications for early identification of risk, prevention, and intervention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)373-382
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2017
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry


  • brain development
  • intergenerational transmission
  • maternal childhood maltreatment
  • psychopathology


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