When a woman experiences a stressful event early in pregnancy, the risk of her child developing autism spectrum disorders or schizophrenia increases. Yet how maternal stress is transmitted to the brain of the developing fetus, leading to these problems in neurodevelopment, is poorly understood.
New findings by University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine scientists suggest that an enzyme found in the placenta is likely playing an important role. This enzyme, O-linked-N-acetylglucosamine transferase, or OGT, translates maternal stress into a reprogramming signal for the brain before birth.
“By manipulating this one gene, we were able to recapitulate many aspects of early prenatal stress,” said Tracy L. Bale, senior author on the paper and a professor in the Department of Animal Biology at Penn Vet. “OGT seems to be serving a role as the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ offering a readout of mom’s stress to change the baby’s developing brain.”
Bale also holds an appointment in the Department of Psychiatry in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Her co-author is postdoctoral researcher Christopher L. Howerton. The paper was published online in PNAS this week.
OGT is known to play a role in gene expression through chromatin remodeling, a process that makes some genes more or less available to be converted into proteins. In a study published last year in PNAS, Bale’s lab found that placentas from male mice pups had lower levels of OGT than those from female pups, and placentas from mothers that had been exposed to stress early in gestation had lower overall levels of OGT than placentas from the mothers’ unstressed counterparts.
“People think that the placenta only serves to promote blood flow between a mom and her baby, but that’s really not all it’s doing,” Bale said. “It’s a very dynamic endocrine tissue and it’s sex-specific, and we’ve shown that tampering with it can dramatically affect a baby’s developing brain.”