Exposure of the fetus to excess maternal glucocorticoids has been postulated to alter fetal growth and development, and thus provide a possible mechanism for the link between impaired fetal growth and altered postnatal physiology. However, the effects of exposure to excess maternal glucocorticoids on fetal physiology and metabolism in utero have not been described. We therefore studied the effects of chronic maternal cortisol infusion on fetal growth, blood pressure, metabolism and endocrine status in chronically catheterised fetal sheep. We infused hydrocortisone (80 mg/day, n=6) or saline (n=8) for 10 days into the pregnant ewes beginning at 119 days of gestation. Maternal cortisol infusion reduced fetal growth rate by 30% (girth increment 2.9+/-0.3 vs 1.8+/-0.4 mm/day, P=0.03). Maternal cortisol infusion increased fetal heart weight by 15% relative to body weight and increased ventricular wall thickness by 30% in the left and 50% in the right ventricle. The weight of the spleen was reduced by 30% and placental weight reduced by 25%. Fetal blood pressure increased by approximately 10 mmHg (20%) during maternal cortisol infusion. Maternal cortisol infusion did not alter amino-nitrogen concentrations. However, maternal lactate concentrations increased by 80% and fetal lactate concentrations increased by 74% with maternal cortisol infusion, and both maternal and fetal urea concentrations increased by 40%. Circulating maternal IGF-binding protein (IGFBP)-3 levels had increased by 20% by the end of the maternal cortisol infusion. Fetal IGF-I concentrations decreased during cortisol infusion and fetal IGFBP-1 concentrations were negatively correlated with fetal weight (r=-0.76, P=0.02). We conclude that even a modest elevation of maternal cortisol levels affects fetal growth, cardiovascular function, metabolism and endocrine status which may have long-term consequences.
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