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Epigenetic Programming Effects of Early Life Stress: A Dual-Activation Hypothesis

[ Vol. 19 , Issue. 8 ]


Vanessa Lux*   Pages 638 - 652 ( 15 )


Epigenetic processes during early brain development can function as ‘developmental switches’ that contribute to the stability of long-term effects of early environmental influences by programming central feedback mechanisms of the HPA axis and other neural networks. In this thematic review, we summarize accumulated evidence for a dual-activation of stress-related and sensory networks underlying the epigenetic programming effects of early life stress. We discuss findings indicating epigenetic programming of stress-related genes with impact on HPA axis function, the interaction of epigenetic mechanisms with neural activity in stress-related neural networks, epigenetic effects of glucocorticoid exposure, and the impact of stress on sensory development. Based on these findings, we propose that the combined activation of stress-related neural networks and stressor-specific sensory networks leads to both neural and hormonal priming of the epigenetic machinery, which sensitizes these networks for developmental programming effects. This allows stressor-specific adaptations later in life, but may also lead to functional mal-adaptations, depending on timing and intensity of the stressor. Finally, we discuss methodological and clinical implications of the dual-activation hypothesis. We emphasize that, in addition to modifications in stress-related networks, we need to account for functional modifications in sensory networks and their epigenetic underpinnings to elucidate the longterm effects of early life stress.


Neuroepigenetics, Sensory development, HPA axis, Critical period, Bdnf, Mecp2.


Department of Genetic Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum

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