Human epidemiological and animal studies indicate that in addition to life style and genetic factors, environmental influences in prenatal life have a major impact on brain ageing and age-associated brain disorders. We hypothesize that: (1) prenatal stress i.e. maternal stress, treatment with stress hormones (glucocorticoids) and undernutrition programs early brain ageing; (2) this predisposes to age-associated brain diseases including cognitive decline and stroke; (3) epigenetic changes affecting glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity, altered autonomic nervous system reactivity and altered cerebrovascular tone are important mediators of these processes, (4) these changes represent targets for diagnosis, preventive measures and therapeutic interventions. Stress is increasingly prevalent in today’s society and a stress sensitive brain is particularly vulnerable for an early loss of brain resilience to challenges.
Our consortium has unique access to well-defined human and non-human primate cohorts at different ages from early childhood to the elderly that have been exposed to different types of prenatal stress. For experimental analysis of mechanisms of prenatal programming, we apply innovative techniques to characterize brain ageing, namely MRI based volumetry, non-linear analysis of EEG and autonomous activity, advanced molecular techniques including epigenetics, metabolomics and neuropsychological as well as behavioral tests.