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J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Nov;92(11):4094-100. Epub 2007 Sep 11.

Body size at birth predicts hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis response to psychosocial stress at age 60 to 70 years.

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National Public Health Institute, Department of Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention, Mannerheimintie 166, 00300 Helsinki, Finland.



Studies in humans and animals have suggested intrauterine programming of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) function as an important mechanism in linking fetal life conditions with adult disease.


Our aim was to assess how body size at birth, a marker of intrauterine conditions, is associated with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis response to psychosocial stress in late adulthood.


We conducted a clinical study in the Helsinki Birth Cohort.


Two hundred eighty-seven men and women born between 1934 and 1944 whose birth measurements and gestational age came from hospital records participated in the study.


We measured salivary cortisol and, for 215 individuals, plasma cortisol and ACTH concentrations in conjunction with a standardized psychosocial stressor (Trier Social Stress Test).


There was a linear relationship between low birth weight and low plasma ACTH but no linear relationship with cortisol. There were, however, quadratic relationships between birth weight and salivary (mixed model P = 0.001) and plasma cortisol (P = 0.005) but not with plasma ACTH (P = 0.1). The lowest peak salivary cortisol concentrations were seen in the lowest third of birth weights (adjusted for gestational age and sex): 12.9 nmol/liter (95% confidence interval of mean 11.2-15.0), compared with 17.1 nmol/liter (14.8-19.8) in the middle and 14.1 nmol/liter (12.6-15.7) in the highest third of birth weights. Corresponding figures for plasma cortisol were 418 nmol/liter (380-459), 498 nmol/liter (455-545), and 454 nmol/liter (428-482), and for plasma ACTH 8.17 pmol/liter (6.98-9.57), 12.42 pmol/liter (10.64-14.51), and 11.50 (10.06-13.14), respectively. Results for areas under the curve were similar.


We found an inverse U-shaped relationship between birth weight and cortisol concentrations during psychosocial stress. The lowest cortisol and ACTH concentrations were seen in subjects with the lowest birth weights. These results support the hypothesis that both hyper- and hypocortisolism may be programmed during the fetal period.

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