What are the effects of maternal and pre-adult environments on ageing in humans, and are there lessons from animal models?
Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 126:3, 431–438 (2005)
An open issue in research on ageing is the extent to which responses to the environment during development can influence variability in life span in animals, and the health profile of the elderly in human populations. Both affluence and adversity in human societies have profound impacts on survivorship curves, and some of this effect may be traceable to effects in utero or in infancy. The Barker Hypothesis that links caloric restriction in very early life to disruptions of glucose-insulin metabolism in later life has attracted much attention, as well as some controversy, in medical circles. It is only rarely considered by evolutionary biologists working on phenotypic plasticity, or by biogerontologists studying model organisms such as C. elegans or Drosophila. One crucial mechanism by which animals can respond in an adaptive manner to adverse conditions, for example in nutrition or infection, during development is phenotypic plasticity. Here we begin with a discussion of adaptive plasticity in animals before asking what such phenomena may reveal of relevance to rates of ageing in animals, and in humans. We survey the evidence for effects on adult ageing of environmental conditions during development across mammalian and invertebrate model organisms, and ask whether evolutionary conserved mechanisms might be involved. We conclude that the Barker Hypothesis is poorly supported and argue that more work in human populations should be integrated with multi-disciplinary studies of ageing-related phenomena in experimental populations of different model species that are subjected to nutritional challenges or infections during pre-adult development.