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Psychosom Med. 1996 Sep-Oct;58(5):432-46.

Prenatal psychosocial factors and the neuroendocrine axis in human pregnancy.

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  • 1Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of California, Irvine, USA.



Physiological processes including neuroendocrine function have been proposed as mediators of the relationship between prenatal psychological state and pregnancy outcome; however, there are virtually no human studies that have systematically assessed such mechanisms. Neuroendocrine processes are significantly altered during pregnancy, and are characterized by the evolution of a transient neuroendocrine system, the placenta, and modifications in endocrine control mechanisms. Because these alterations have implications for neuroendocrine responsivity to exogenous conditions, the aim of the present study was to examine the cross-sectional association between prenatal psychosocial factors and stress-related neuroendocrine parameters during human pregnancy.


Fifty-four adult women with a singleton, intrauterine pregnancy were recruited before 28 weeks of gestation. Maternal antecubital venous blood samples were withdrawn at 28 weeks of gestation for bioassays of adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH), beta-endorphin (beta E), and cortisol. Measures of prenatal stress, social support, and personality were collected using a two-part, self-report questionnaire administered at 28 and 30 weeks of gestation. Biomedical data were obtained from the medical record. Factors known to influence neuropeptide and hormone levels during pregnancy were controlled, including gestational age, circadian variation, and obstetric risk.


In the present sample, prenatal psychosocial stress, social support, and personality variables were associated with neuroendocrine parameters in two primary ways. First, certain psychosocial factors were significantly associated with plasma levels of ACTH, beta E, and cortisol, and second, psychosocial factors were associated with a measure of disregulation of the normal relationship between two pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) derivatives, ACTH and beta E. Furthermore, a combination of the maternal psychosocial and sociodemographic factors during pregnancy accounted for 36% of the variance in ACTH, 22% of the variance in the ACTH-beta E disregulation index, 13% of the variance in cortisol, and 3% of the variance in beta E.


The present findings are consistent with the premise that maternal-placental-fetal neuroendocrine parameters are significantly associated, both in magnitude and specificity, with features of maternal psychosocial functioning in pregnancy despite the systemic alterations associated with the endocrinology of pregnancy. These findings provide a basis for further investigations of the role of the neuroendocrine system as a putative mediating pathway between prenatal psychosocial factors and birth outcome, and possibly also as a mechanism linking features of the maternal psychosocial environment to fetal/infant brain development.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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