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Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2004 Feb;286(2):E311-9. Epub 2003 Oct 14.

Antenatal glucocorticoids reset the level of baseline and hypoxemia-induced pituitary-adrenal activity in the sheep fetus during late gestation.

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  • 1Department of Physiology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EG, UK.


This study examined the effects of dexamethasone treatment on basal hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function and HPA responses to subsequent acute hypoxemia in the ovine fetus during late gestation. Between 117 and 120 days (term: approximately 145 days), 12 fetal sheep and their mothers were catheterized under halothane anesthesia. From 124 days, 6 fetuses were continuously infused intravenously with dexamethasone (1.80 +/- 0.15 in 0.9% saline at 0.5 ml/h) for 48 h, while the remaining 6 fetuses received saline at the same rate. Two days after infusion, when dexamethasone had cleared from the fetal circulation, acute hypoxemia was induced in both groups for 1 h by reducing the maternal fraction of inspired O2. Fetal dexamethasone treatment transiently lowered fetal basal plasma cortisol, but not ACTH, concentrations. However, 2 days after treatment, fetal basal plasma cortisol concentration was elevated without changes in basal ACTH concentration. Despite elevated basal plasma cortisol concentration, the ACTH response to acute hypoxemia was enhanced, and the increment in plasma cortisol levels was maintained, in dexamethasone-treated fetuses. Correlation of fetal plasma ACTH and cortisol concentrations indicated enhanced cortisol output without a change in adrenocortical sensitivity. The enhancements in basal cortisol concentration and the HPA axis responses to acute hypoxemia after dexamethasone treatment were associated with reductions in pituitary and adrenal glucocorticoid receptor mRNA contents, which persisted at 3-4 days after the end of treatment. These data show that prenatal glucocorticoids alter the basal set point of the HPA axis and enhance HPA axis responses to acute stress in the ovine fetus during late gestation.

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