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J Reprod Immunol. 1998 Aug;39(1-2):215-20.

Alterations in the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis during pregnancy and the placental clock that determines the length of parturition.

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Maternal Health Research Centre, John Hunter Hospital, NSW, Australia.


Although corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) was initially identified as a hypothalamic peptide it is also synthesised in the placenta and secreted into both the maternal and fetal circulation. The presence of large molecular weight forms in the placenta suggest that secretion may be constitutive rather that regulated. Placental CRH is bioactive but causes only modest increases in ACTH and cortisol in the pregnant woman because of agonist induced desensitisation of pituitary CRH receptors. CRH concentrations increase exponentially in maternal plasma as gestation advances. Elevated concentrations, compared with gestational age matched controls, occur in patients in preterm labour. The exponential curve describing the CRH increase is shifted to the left in women who will subsequently deliver preterm and to the right in women who will deliver post dates indicating that CRH is linked to a placental clock which determines the length of gestation. Maternal plasma CRH concentrations may be useful in identifying women at high risk of preterm delivery and CRH antagonists may prevent preterm labour. As significant CRH production by the placenta is restricted to primates future research must take into account the species specificity of the mechanisms regulating parturition.

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