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Mental illnesses originate early in life, governed by environmental and genetic factors. Because parents are a dominant source of signals to the developing child, parental signals - beginning with maternal signals in utero - are primary contributors to children’s mental health. Existing literature on maternal signals has focused almost exclusively on their quality and valence (e.g. maternal depression, sensitivity). Here we identify a novel dimension of maternal signals: their patterns and especially their predictability/unpredictability, as an important determinant of children’s neurodevelopment. We find that unpredictable maternal mood and behavior presage risk for child and adolescent psychopathology. In experimental models, fragmented/unpredictable maternal care patterns directly induce aberrant synaptic connectivity and disturbed maturation of cognitive and emotional brain circuits, with commensurate memory problems and anhedonia-like behaviors. Together, our findings across species demonstrate that patterns of maternal signals influence brain circuit maturation, promoting resilience or vulnerability to mental illness.


NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, volume 53, in 2019.

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