J Physiol 2008 Sep 17;586(17):4317-26. Epub 2008 Jul 17.
Department of Physiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Medical Sciences Building, 1 King's College Circle, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 1A8.
Studies in humans and animals have demonstrated that maternal stress during fetal development can lead to altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function and behaviour postnatally. We have previously shown adult male guinea pigs that were born to mothers exposed to a stressor during the phase of rapid fetal brain growth (gestational days (GD) 50, 51 and 52; prenatal stress (PS)50) exhibit significantly increased basal plasma cortisol levels. In contrast, male guinea pig offspring whose mothers were exposed to stress later in gestation (GD60, 61 and 62; PS60) exhibited a significantly higher plasma cortisol response to activation of the HPA axis. In the present study, we hypothesized that the endocrine changes in HPA axis function observed in male guinea pig offspring would be reflected by altered molecular regulation of the HPA axis. Corticosteroid receptors in the hippocampus, hypothalamus and pituitary were measured, as well as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) and adrenal enzymes in the paraventricular nucleus, pituitary and adrenal cortex, respectively, by in situ hybridization and Western blot. PS50 male offspring exhibited a significant reduction in glucocorticoid receptor (GR) mRNA (P <0.01) in the CA3 region of the hippocampus and significantly increased POMC mRNA (P <0.05) in the pituitary, consistent with the increase in basal HPA axis activity observed. In line with elevated activity of the HPA axis, both PS50 and PS60 male offspring exhibited significantly higher steroidogenic factor (SF)-1 (P <0.001) and melanocortin 2 receptor (MC2-R) mRNA (P <0.001) in the adrenal cortex. This study demonstrates that short periods of prenatal stress during critical windows of neuroendocrine development affect the expression of key regulators of HPA axis activity leading to the changes in endocrine function observed in prenatally stressed male offspring. Further, these changes are dependent on the timing of the maternal stressor, a pattern that is emerging in human studies.