Effects of Maternal Dexamethasone Treatment in Early Pregnancy on Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Fetal Sheep Journal Articles uri icon

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  • AbstractFetal exposure to elevated levels of bioactive glucocorticoids early in gestation, as in suspected cases of congenital adrenal hyperplasia, may result in adverse neurological events. Fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal development and function may be involved. We investigated immediate and long-term effects of maternal dexamethasone (DEX) administration early in pregnancy on fetal growth and pituitary-adrenal activity in sheep. Pregnant ewes carrying singleton fetuses (total n = 119) were randomized to control (2 ml saline/ewe) or DEX-treated groups (im injections of 0.14 mg/kg ewe weight · 12 h) at 40–41 d gestation (dG). At 50, 100, 125, and 140 dG, fetal plasma and tissues were collected. DEX-exposed fetuses were lighter than controls at 100 dG (P < 0.05) but not at any other times. Fetal plasma ACTH levels and pituitary POMC and PC-1 mRNA levels were similar between groups. Fetal plasma cortisol levels were significantly reduced after DEX exposure in both male and female fetuses at 50 dG (P < 0.05), were similar at 100 and 125 dG, but were significantly higher than controls at 140 dG. At 140 dG, there was increased adrenal P450C17 and 3β-HSD mRNA in female fetuses and reduced expression of ACTH-R mRNA in males. Fetal hepatic CBG mRNA levels mimicked plasma cortisol patterns. DEX exposure reduced CBG only in males at 50 dG (P < 0.05). Placental mRNA levels of 11β-HSD2 were increased after DEX in males (P < 0.05). Therefore, in sheep, early DEX may alter the developmental trajectory of the fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, directly increasing fetal adrenal activation but not anterior pituitary function. In females, this effect may be attributed, in part, to increased fetal adrenal steroidogenic activity.


  • Braun, Thorsten
  • Li, Shaofu
  • Sloboda, Deborah
  • Li, Wei
  • Audette, Melanie C
  • Moss, Timothy JM
  • Matthews, Stephen G
  • Polglase, Graeme
  • Nitsos, Ilias
  • Newnham, John P
  • Challis, John RG

publication date

  • December 1, 2009

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