The placenta plays a central role in the epigenetic programming of neurodevelopment by prenatal stress (PS), but this pathway is not fully understood. It difficult to study in humans because the conditions for intense, traumatic PS are almost impossible to create ethically. This study was able to capitalize on a 2012 disaster that hit New York, Superstorm Sandy, to examine the impact of traumatic stress on placental gene expression while also examining normative PS, and compare the two. Of the 303 expectant mothers participating in the Stress in Pregnancy Study, 95 women were pregnant when Superstorm Sandy struck. During their pregnancy, participants completed self-report measures of PS and distress that were combined, using latent profile analysis, into one global indicator of normative PS. Placental tissue was collected at delivery and frozen for storage. RNA expression was assessed for 40 placental genes known to associate with the stress response system and neurodevelopment in offspring. Results showed that normative PS increased expression of just MECP2, HSD11B2, and ZNF507, whereas Superstorm Sandy PS decreased expression of CDKL5, CFL1, DYRK1A, HSD11B2, MAOA, MAOB, NCOR1, and ZNF507. Interaction analyses indicated that Superstorm Sandy PS was associated with decreased gene expression for the low and high PS group for CFL1, DYRK1A, HSD11B2, MAOA, and NCOR1 and increased expression for the moderate PS group for FOXP1, NR3C1, and NR3C2. This study supports the idea that a moderate amount of normative PS may buffer the impact of traumatic PS, in this case caused by Superstorm Sandy, on placental gene expression, which suggests that the placenta itself mirrors the organism’s ability to develop an epigenetic resilience to, and inoculation from, stress.
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