Synthetic glucocorticoids have become an important clinical tool with which to advance fetal lung maturation in women at risk of early preterm birth, and this has succeeded in reducing neonatal mortality and morbidity from respiratory distress syndrome. Although previous studies have shown that glucocorticoids have deleterious consequences on fetal development, there is little information regarding the effects of clinically relevant repeated maternal doses of glucocorticoids on fetal growth and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function. We hypothesised that repeated prenatal exposure to increased concentrations of glucocorticoids would alter fetal growth and HPA axis development. Pregnant ewes were injected with betamethasone (0.5 mg/kg) or vehicle at 104, 111 and 118 days of gestation (term 150 days). Animals were sacrificed at 125 and 146 days of gestation, at which time fetal weights were recorded. Maternal and fetal blood samples were gathered and fetal tissue collected. Maternal oestradiol concentrations were significantly greater than those in controls at 125 days of gestation, but were not different at 146 days. Maternal plasma progesterone concentrations were similar between groups at both 125 and 146 days of gestation. Weight at birth was significantly reduced by 23% at 125 days and 19% at 146 days of gestation (P<0.05) after exposure to glucocorticoid. Cord plasma ACTH concentrations were not significantly different between groups at day 125, but were significantly increased in day 146 fetuses of ewes that had received betamethasone (P<0.05). Cord plasma cortisol concentrations followed the same trend, although differences were not statistically significant. Cord plasma corticosteroid binding capacity (CBC) was significantly increased at 125 days of gestation in fetuses of betamethasone-treated animals (P<0.05), but not at 146 days of gestation. To examine the mechanisms regulating the increase in cord plasma ACTH of 146-day fetuses, we used in situ hybridisation to determine the distribution and levels of mRNA encoding key pituitary and hypothalamic neuropeptides of the HPA axis. In pituitaries of 146-day fetuses, there were no significant differences in the regional pattern of distribution or amounts of pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA between betamethasone-treated animals and controls, in either the pars intermedia or the inferior and superior regions of the pars distalis. Neither prohormone convertase (PC)-1 nor PC-2 mRNA levels in pituitaries of 146-day fetuses were significantly different between treatment groups. After maternal betamethasone, immunoreactive ACTH peptide content in the fetal pars distalis was not different but glucocorticoid receptor (GR) mRNA levels in the pars distalis were increased significantly (P<0.05). No significant difference in distribution pattern or concentrations of corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) mRNA, GR mRNA, oxytocin mRNA and pre-proenkephalin mRNA were found in hypothalami from fetuses at 146 days of gestation after betamethasone treatment. We conclude that antenatal betamethasone given to pregnant sheep in a manner similar to that used in human obstetric practice results in reduced weight at birth at 125 and 146 days, and altered basal cord levels of plasma ACTH and corticosteroid binding capacity, but these changes are not reflective of changes in steady state concentrations of POMC and CRH mRNA in the fetal pituitary or hypothalamus.
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DM Sloboda, JP Newnham, and Challis JR
DM Sloboda, JP Newnham, and Challis JR
Prenatal glucocorticoid exposure has been associated with a reduction in birth weight and postnatal alterations in glucose homeostasis and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function. The mechanisms underlying these responses are unknown, although changes in fetal hepatic development may play an important role. The fetal liver produces key regulators of fuel metabolism and of the developing HPA axis that are altered by glucocorticoids. The local availability of glucocorticoids is regulated, in part, by corticosteroid-binding protein (CBG), glucocorticoid receptors (GR) and by the enzyme 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11betaHSD), but the effects of maternal glucocorticoid administration on the expression of these genes in the fetal liver are unknown. 11betaHSD1 is the predominant form of this enzyme present in the liver and is responsible for the conversion of cortisone to cortisol. To determine if prenatal glucocorticoid exposure alters fetal hepatic regulation of CBG, 11betaHSD1 and GRs, we treated pregnant ewes with betamethasone (0.5 mg/kg) intramuscularly at 104, 111 and 118 days of gestation (term 150 days). Animals were killed at 125 or 146 days of gestation. Maternal betamethasone administration did not alter mean cord plasma glucose but significantly decreased cord plasma insulin levels (P<0.05) at 125 days of gestation. At 146 days of gestation, cord plasma glucose levels were significantly increased without alterations in insulin levels following maternal betamethasone treatment (P<0.05). Maternal betamethasone administration resulted in a significant increase in fetal hepatic 11betaHSD1 mRNA and protein levels at 125 days of gestation (P<0.05). CBG mRNA levels were significantly elevated over control at 125 days although levels of CBG protein were not significantly different. GR protein levels were not statistically different at either 125 or 146 days of gestation following glucocorticoid administration. These data suggest that prenatal betamethasone exposure in the ovine fetus results in alterations in cord glucose and insulin levels as well as alterations in hepatic 11betaHSD1 mRNA and protein expression. These changes in 11betaHSD1 increase the potential to generate local cortisol from circulating cortisone. We speculate that this could affect expression of glucocorticoid-dependent hepatic enzymes involved with the regulation of glucose production and HPA responsiveness.
DM Sloboda, TJ Moss, LC Gurrin, JP Newnham, and Challis JR
Prenatal exposure to glucocorticoids is associated with alterations in fetal growth and endocrine function. However, few studies have examined the effects of clinically relevant doses of glucocorticoids on postnatal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function. To determine the effects of maternal or fetal betamethasone administration (0.5 mg/kg maternal or estimated fetal weight) on postnatal HPA function at 6 months and 1 year postnatal age, pregnant ewes were randomized into the following treatment groups: no treatment (n=6); maternal saline (n=6); single maternal betamethasone (M1) (n=6); repeated maternal betamethasone (M4) (n=6); fetal saline (n=5); single fetal betamethasone (n=6) and repeated fetal betamethasone (F4) (n=6). Single injections were given at 104 days of gestation and repeated injections at 104, 111, 118 and 125 days. Lambs were born spontaneously and the ACTH and cortisol responses to i.v. corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) (0.5 microg/kg) plus arginine vasopressin (AVP) (0.1 microg/kg) were measured at 6 months and 1 year postnatally. At 6 months postnatal age, neither maternal nor fetal prenatal betamethasone administration altered significantly the ACTH and cortisol responses to CRH+AVP. However, in animals at 1 year postnatal age, a previous single injection of betamethasone to the mother (M1) resulted in significantly elevated basal and stimulated cortisol levels (P<0.05), without significant change in the ACTH response. In contrast, betamethasone administration to the fetus resulted in significantly attenuated ACTH responses to CRH+AVP at 1 year compared with control animals (P<0.05), but these were not associated with any significant changes in basal or stimulated cortisol levels. All control animals exhibited a significant increase in peak ACTH responses to CRH+AVP between 6 months and 1 year postnatal age (P<0.05). After prenatal betamethasone (F4, M4) the difference in peak ACTH response between animals at 6 months and 1 year postnatal age was abolished. We conclude that in sheep between 6 months and 1 year postnatal age, HPA function undergoes developmental changes that are influenced by prenatal glucocorticoid exposure. Furthermore, the effects of glucocorticoid on postnatal HPA responses may vary according to the time in gestation that the steroid was administered, and whether it was given directly into the fetal or maternal compartment.