Chronic prenatal stress epigenetically modifies spinal cord BDNF expression to induce sex-specific visceral hypersensitivity in offspring

J. H. Winston, Q. Li, S. K. Sarna

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


Background: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a heterogeneous disorder with abdominal pain as one of the primary symptoms. The etiology of IBS remains unknown. Epidemiological studies found that a subset of these patients have a history of adverse early-life experiences. We tested the hypothesis that chronic prenatal stress (CPS) epigenetically enhances brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in spinal cord to aggravate colon sensitivity to colorectal distension (CRD) differentially in male and female offspring. Methods: We used heterotypic intermittent chronic stress (HeICS) protocols in pregnant dams from E11 until delivery. Key Results: Chronic prenatal stress induced significant visceral hypersensitivity (VHS) to CRD in male and female offspring. A second exposure to HeICS in adult offspring exacerbated VHS greater in female offspring that persisted longer than in male offspring. Chronic prenatal stress upregulated BDNF expression in the lumbar-sacral dorsal horn that correlated with the exacerbation of VHS in female, but not in male offspring. The upregulation of BDNF was due to a significant increase in RNA Pol II binding, histone H3 acetylation, and significant decrease in histone deacetylase 1 association with the core promoter of BDNF in female offspring. Other chronic prenatal and neonatal stress protocols were less effective than HeICS. Conclusions & Inferences: The development of VHS, which contributes to the symptom of intermittent abdominal pain, is a two-step process, chronic in utero stress followed by chronic stress in adult-life. This two-step process induces aggravated and persistent colon hypersensitivity in female than in male offspring. Our preclinical model explains several clinical features in IBS patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)715-730
Number of pages16
JournalNeurogastroenterology and Motility
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2014


  • BDNF
  • Chronic stress
  • Functional bowel disorders
  • Iritable bowel syndrome
  • Visceral hypersnsitivity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Gastroenterology


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