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Stress in pregnancy could affect the fetus

26 January, 2015

Stress in pregnancy could affect the fetus

Maternal stress hormones could affect fetal development, according to a new study.

Researchers from Cambridge University used pregnant mice to see if high stress levels affected their offspring.

They found that when they increased the levels of a natural stress hormone (glucocorticoid corticosterone) in pregnant mice, it caused the mother to eat more, but reduced the ability of the placenta to transport glucose to her fetus.

Glucocorticoids are steroid hormones, which are important in regulating metabolism in adults as well as in the fetus.

Glucocorticoid levels are raised by stress related to the physical or social environment, disease or pregnancy.

Pregnant mice were given the natural glucocorticoid corticosterone in their drinking water and allowed to eat freely or limited to the normal food intake of untreated mice.

This treatment was designed to produce glucocorticoid levels in the mother similar to those seen in stressful conditions, such as during food shortage, for approximately the last quarter of pregnancy.

Researchers then used tracer technology to measure the amount of glucose crossing the placenta in a specific period and related this to feto-placental growth and the signalling pathways in the placenta involved in growth and nutrient transport.

Lead author Dr Owen Vaughan said: ‘Together with previous work, the findings show that maternal glucocorticoids regulate fetal nutrition. Higher glucocorticoid hormone levels in the mother (as seen in stressful conditions) can reduce glucose transport across the placenta and lead to a decrease in fetal weight.

‘Glucocorticoid levels in pregnant women may determine the specific combination of nutrients received by the fetus and influence the long-term metabolic health of their children as a result.'

Dr Vaughan highlighted that this could have implications for women stressed during pregnancy or treated clinically with glucocorticoids, if the mechanisms are similar in humans.

He added: ‘Our research showed that under stress, certain genes in the placenta were modified. One of the genes shown to be altered in the placenta by maternal stress hormones was Redd1. This gene is believed to signal availability of other substances, like oxygen, and to interact with intracellular pathways regulating growth and nutrient uptake in other tissues of the body.

'Future studies may prove this molecule is important in the placenta, in linking environmental cues to the nutrition of the fetus.’

The study was published today (26 January) in The Journal of Physiology.

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