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J Physiol. 2005 Aug 1;566(Pt 3):967-77. Epub 2005 Jun 2.

Short periods of prenatal stress affect growth, behaviour and hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis activity in male guinea pig offspring.

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Department of Physiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Medical Sciences Building, 1 King's College Circle, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 1A8. Canada.


Prenatal stress can have profound long-term influences on physiological function throughout the course of life. We hypothesized that focused periods of moderate prenatal stress at discrete time points in late gestation have differential effects on hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function in adult guinea pig offspring, and that changes in HPA axis function will be associated with modification of anxiety-related behaviour. Pregnant guinea pigs were exposed to a strobe light for 2 h on gestational days (GD) 50, 51, 52 (PS50) or 60, 61, 62 (PS60) (gestation length approximately 70 days). A control group was left undisturbed throughout pregnancy. Behaviour was assessed in male offspring on postnatal day (PND)25 and PND70 by measurement of ambulatory activity and thigmotaxis (wall-seeking behaviour) in a novel open field environment. Subsequent to behavioural testing, male offspring were cannulated (PND75) to evaluate basal and activated HPA axis function. Body weight was significantly decreased in adult PS50 and PS60 offspring and this effect was apparent soon after weaning. The brain-to-body-weight ratio was significantly increased in adult PS50 males. Basal plasma cortisol levels were elevated in PS50 male offspring throughout the 24 h sampling period compared with controls. In response to an ACTH challenge and to exposure to an acute stressor, PS60 male offspring exhibited elevated plasma cortisol responses. Plasma testosterone concentrations were strikingly decreased in PS50 offspring. Thigmotaxis in the novel environment was increased in PS50 male offspring at PND25 and PND70, suggesting increased anxiety in these animals. In conclusion, prenatal stress during critical windows of neuroendocrine development programs growth, HPA axis function, and stress-related behaviour in adult male guinea pig offspring. Further, the nature of the effect is dependant on the timing of the maternal stress during pregnancy.

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