Page URL:

Stress in mice alters sperm and affects offspring brain development

26 February 2018
Appeared in BioNews 939

A father's stress levels can affect the brain development of his offspring, new research has found.

The study, carried out in mice, found that greater levels of stress around the time of conception resulted in offspring with a reduced stress response. Lowered stress response has been linked to a number of disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

The findings of the study, led by neuroscientist Professor Tracy Bale, a neuroscientist and pharmacologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and presented at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas, show that the father's environment can affect offspring development by changing important characteristics of his sperm

Previously, work by the group had found that male mice experiencing prolonged periods of even mild stress produced sperm that had higher levels of microRNA, which play an important role in regulating gene expression. Importantly, they showed that higher microRNA levels in the sperm seemed to cause a reduced stress response in the offspring. 

In their new study, Bale and her team found that an increase in glucocorticoids, a class of stress hormone, triggers a change to proteins found in cells of the structure where sperm matures. As a result, the cells produce higher levels of certain microRNAs, which are released in small sacs called vesicles to interact with the sperm. 

'[The vesicles] interact with the sperm and then the sperm carry those differences to the egg at fertilisation,' said Bale.

It has long been known that different environmental factors affecting the expectant mother – including poor diet, stress and disease – can have a negative effect on fetal development during pregnancy. These factors do not change the DNA of the offspring: instead, the environmental changes alter the expression of certain genes, known as an epigenetic modification.

These findings suggest that similar environmental factors also affect male mice and influence the development of their offspring in a similar way. 

'What it is telling us is that there is a point in the reproductive tract of the male that responds to changes in the environment – in this case it is stress, but other groups have looked at things like dietary challenge,' said Bale. 'These effects… seem to be lasting in the father.'

The team are now investigating whether similar effects happen in humans. It's hoped that better understanding of the links between a father's exposure to stress around conception could help to improve detection and prevention of neurodevelopmental disorders in children. 

Increased stress on fathers leads to brain development changes in offspring
EurekAlert! |  16 February 2018
Mildly stressed fathers can damage the brain development of their children in the womb
IBTimes UK |  16 February 2018
Stress in fathers may alter sperm and affect behaviour in offspring
The Guardian |  16 February 2018
14 October 2019 - by Dr Jennifer Frosch 
Developing post-traumatic stress disorder following traumatic events has a strong genetic component, a new study shows...
3 June 2019 - by Dr Sam Sherratt 
Sons whose mothers experienced high levels of stress during their first 18 weeks of pregnancy may have reduced fertility when they become adults...
9 July 2018 - by Dr Marianne Kennedy and Shaoni Bhattacharya 
Eating nuts may significantly improve sperm quality and function in healthy men, suggests new research...
21 May 2018 - by Dr Melanie Krause 
Men who have major depression are less likely to conceive a child, a clinical study at the US National Institute of Health has found...
12 March 2018 - by Kulraj Singh Bhangra 
Studies in humans and animals have found that certain antihistamines may affect testicular function in males...
5 February 2018 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
We are already into the second month of 2018, so if you made New Year's resolutions then the chances are that, like me, you've long ditched them – especially any regarding your health. It seems that changing old habits is hard, even those that we know will increase our risk of succumbing to disease and disability...
5 February 2018 - by Dr Loredana Guglielmi 
A study led by UK researchers has shown for the first time that human muscles possess a 'memory' of earlier growth...
29 January 2018 - by Professor Marcus Pembrey 
The recent demonstration that friends share more of their genetic makeup in common than two people picked at random from their population has been making the headlines...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.