J Physiol 2010 Mar 11;588(Pt 5):887-99. Epub 2010 Jan 11.
Department of Physiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Medical Sciences Building, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Preterm delivery occurs in approximately 10% of all pregnancies. Prenatal exposure to synthetic glucocorticoids (sGCs) reduces the incidence of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in these babies. Therefore, administration of multiple courses of sGCs became common practice. Animal and human studies have demonstrated that multiple courses of sGCs can have long-term effects. While the majority of animal studies have been undertaken in male offspring, it is emerging that there are profound sex differences in the consequences of prenatal sGC exposure. To our knowledge, no studies have determined the effects of prenatal sGC exposure on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function in female offspring while accounting for reproductive cycle status, or determined if there are effects on pregnancy parameters. Pregnant guinea pigs were administered three courses of betamethasone (Beta), dexamethasone (Dex) or vehicle on gestational days 40/41, 50/51 and 60/61. In adulthood (age range: postnatal days 126-165), basal and activated HPA axis function were assessed at various stages of the reproductive cycle. The female offspring were then mated and underwent an undisturbed pregnancy. Females were killed in the luteal phase of the reproductive cycle following litter weaning, and molecular analysis undertaken. In the luteal phase, Beta-exposed females exhibited significantly lower basal salivary cortisol levels (P < 0.05). Dex-exposed females also exhibited significantly lower basal salivary cortisol levels during the luteal phase (P < 0.05), but increased basal salivary cortisol levels during the ostrous phase (P < 0.01). The Beta-exposed females exhibited increased glucocorticoid receptor (GR) mRNA expression in the CA1/2 region of the hippocampus (P < 0.05) and MC2R mRNA in the adrenal cortex (P < 0.05). The Dex-exposed animals exhibited higher hippocampal GR and mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) mRNA levels (P < 0.05). Beta-exposed females showed reduced fecundity (P < 0.05). In Dex-exposed females there was a lower male to female sex ratio. In conclusion, prenatal sGC exposure affects HPA axis activity, in a cycle-dependent manner, and long-term reproductive success. The clinical implications of the findings on endocrine function and pregnancy in females are profound and further follow-up is warranted in human cohorts. Furthermore, we have shown there are considerable difference in phenotypes between the Beta- and Dex-exposed females and the specific endocrine and maternal outcome is contingent on the specific sGCs administered during pregnancy.