Reliable human data on the effects of prenatal exposure to ionizing radiation are largely based on high-dose exposures. Exposure to low doses may produce effects that are not easily observable at birth, and may persist over the course of the offspring's postnatal life. This is important when considering fetal programing, a phenomenon characterized by changes in offspring phenotype due to a stress experienced in utero. In this review, we briefly summarize the known effects of both high- and low-dose exposure to ionizing radiation during pregnancy in humans. There is a major consensus that the atomic bomb survivors' data shows increased incidence of microcephaly and reductions in IQ of A-bomb survivors, whereas, with diagnostic radiography in utero there is no conclusive evidence of increased cancer risk. Due to the relatively limited data (particularly for low-dose exposures) in humans, animal models have emerged as an important tool to study prenatal effects of radiation. These animal models enable researchers to manipulate various experimental parameters and make it possible to analyze a wider variety of end points. In this review, we discuss the major findings from studies using mouse and rat models to examine prenatal ionizing radiation effects in postnatal development of the offspring. In addition, we broadly categorize trends across studies within three major stages of development: pre-implantation, organogenesis and fetal development. Overall, long-term effects of prenatal radiation exposure (including the possible role on the developmental programing of disease) are important factors to consider when assessing radiation risk, since these effects are of relevance even in the low-dose range.

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