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Free access

Paula J Brunton, Katie M Sullivan, David Kerrigan, John A Russell, Jonathan R Seckl, and Amanda J Drake

Glucocorticoid overexposure during pregnancy programmes offspring physiology and predisposes to later disease. However, any impact of ethologically relevant maternal stress is less clear, yet of physiological importance. Here, we investigated in rats the short- and long-term effects in adult offspring of repeated social stress (exposure to an aggressive lactating female) during late pregnancy on glucose regulation following stress, glucose–insulin homoeostasis and peripheral expression of genes important in regulating glucose and lipid metabolism and glucocorticoid action. Prenatal stress (PNS) was associated with reduced birth weight in female, but not male, offspring. The increase in blood glucose with restraint was exaggerated in adult PNS males compared with controls, but not in females. Oral glucose tolerance testing showed no effects on plasma glucose or insulin concentrations in either sex at 3 months; however, at 6 months, PNS females were hyperinsulinaemic following an oral glucose load. In PNS males, plasma triglyceride concentrations were increased, with reduced hepatic mRNA expression of 5α-reductase and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor α (Ppar α (Ppara)) and a strong trend towards reduced peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma coactivator 1α (Pgc1 α (Ppargc1a)) and Ppar γ (Pparg) expression, whereas only Pgc1 α mRNA was affected in PNS females. Conversely, in subcutaneous fat, PNS reduced mRNA expression of 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11 β hsd1), phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (Pepck (Pck1)), adipose triglyceride lipase (Atgl) and diglyceride acyltransferase 2 (Dgat2) in females, but only Pepck mRNA expression was reduced in PNS males. Thus, prenatal social stress differentially programmes glucose homoeostasis and peripheral metabolism in male and female offspring. These long-term alterations in physiology may increase susceptibility to metabolic disease.

Open access

Ying Sze, Joana Fernandes, Zofia M Kołodziejczyk, and Paula J Brunton

Stress during pregnancy negatively affects the fetus and increases the risk for affective disorders in adulthood. Excess maternal glucocorticoids are thought to mediate fetal programming; however, whether they exert their effects directly or indirectly remains unclear. During pregnancy, protective mechanisms including maternal hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis hyporesponsiveness and placental 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11βHSD) type 2, which inactivates glucocorticoids, limit mother-to-fetus glucocorticoid transfer. However, whether repeated stress negatively impacts these mechanisms is not known. Pregnant rats were exposed to repeated social stress on gestational days (GD) 16–20 and several aspects of HPA axis and glucocorticoid regulation, including concentrations of glucocorticoids, gene expression for their receptors (Nr3c1, Nr3c2), receptor chaperones (Fkbp51, Fkbp52) and enzymes that control local glucocorticoid availability (Hsd11b1, Hsd11b2), were investigated in the maternal, placental and fetal compartments on GD20. The maternal HPA axis was activated following stress, though the primary driver was vasopressin, rather than corticotropin-releasing hormone. Despite the stress-induced increase in circulating corticosterone in the dams, only a modest increase was detected in the circulation of female fetuses, with no change in the fetal brain of either sex. Moreover, there was no change in the expression of genes that mediate glucocorticoid actions or modulate local concentrations in the fetal brain. In the placenta labyrinth zone, stress increased Hsd11b2 expression only in males and Fkbp51 expression only in females. Our results indicate that any role glucocorticoids play in fetal programming is likely indirect, perhaps through sex-dependent alterations in placental gene expression, rather than exerting effects via direct crossover into the fetal brain.