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Endocr Res. 2004 Nov;30(4):827-36.

Fetal glucocorticoid exposure and hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function after birth.

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Department of Physiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


The fetus may be exposed to increased endogenous glucocorticoid or synthetic glucocorticoid in late gestation. Indeed, 7-10% of pregnant women in Europe and North America are treated with synthetic glucocorticoid to promote lung maturation in fetuses at risk of preterm delivery. Such therapy is effective in reducing respiratory complications. However, very little is known about the mechanisms by which synthetic glucocorticoid or prenatal stress influence neurodevelopment in the human, or whether specific time windows of increased sensitivity exist. Glucocorticoids are essential for many aspects of normal brain development. However, there is growing evidence that exposure of the fetal brain to excess glucocorticoid can have lifelong effects on neuroendocrine function and behavior. We have shown that both endogenous glucocorticoid and synthetic glucocorticoid exposure has a number of rapid effects in the fetal brain in late gestation, including modification of neurotransmitter systems and transcriptional machinery. Such fetal exposure permanently alters hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function in prepubertal, postpubertal, and aging offspring, in a sex-dependent manner. These effects are linked to changes in central glucocorticoid feedback machinery after birth. Prenatal glucocorticoid manipulation also leads to modification of HPA-associated behaviors, brain and organ morphology, as well as altered regulation of other endocrine systems. Permanent changes in endocrine function will have a long-term impact on health, since elevated cumulative exposure to endogenous glucocorticoid is linked to the premature onset of pathologies associated with aging.

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