Maternal and fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axes during pregnancy and postpartum

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2003 Nov:997:136-49. doi: 10.1196/annals.1290.016.


The principal modulators of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine-vasopressin (AVP). Corticotropin-releasing hormone is not exclusively produced in the hypothalamus. Its presence has been demonstrated at peripheral inflammatory sites. Ovulation and luteolysis bear characteristics of an aseptic inflammation. CRH was found in the theca and stromal cells as well as in cells of the corpora lutea of human and rat ovaries. The cytoplasm of the glandular epithelial cells of the endometrium has been shown to contain CRH and the myometrium contains specific CRH receptors. It has been suggested that CRH of fetal and maternal origin regulates FasL production, thus affecting the invasion (implantation) process through a local auto-paracrine regulatory loop involving the cytotrophoblast cells. Thus, the latter may regulate their own apoptosis. During pregnancy, the plasma level of circulating maternal immunoreactive CRH increases exponentially from the first trimester of gestation due to the CRH production in the placenta, decidua, and fetal membranes. The presence in plasma and amniotic fluid of a CRH-binding protein (CRHbp) that reduces the bioactivity of circulating CRH by binding is unique to humans. Maternal pituitary ACTH secretion and plasma ACTH levels rise during pregnancy-though remaining within normal limits-paralleling the rise of plasma cortisol levels. The maternal adrenal glands during pregnancy gradually become hypertrophic. Pregnancy is a transient, but physiologic, period of hypercortisolism. The diurnal variation of plasma cortisol levels is maintained in pregnancy, probably due to the secretion of AVP from the parvicellular paraventricular nuclei. CRH is detected in the fetal hypothalamus as early as the 12th week of gestation. CRH levels in fetal plasma are 50% less than in maternal plasma. The circulating fetal CRH is almost exclusively of placental origin. The placenta secretes CRH at a slower rate in the fetal compartment. AVP is detected in some neurons of the fetal hypothalamus together with CRH. AVP is usually detectable in the human fetal neurohypophysis at 11 to 12 weeks gestation and increases over 1000-fold over the next 12 to 16 weeks. The role of fetal AVP is unclear. Labor appears to be a stimulus for AVP release by the fetus. The processing of POMC differs in the anterior and intermediate lobes of the fetal pituitary gland. Corticotropin (ACTH) is detectable by radioimmunoassay in fetal plasma at 12 weeks gestation. Concentrations are higher before 34 weeks gestation, with a significant fall in late gestation. The human fetal adrenal is enormous relative to that of the adult organ. Adrenal steroid synthesis is increased in the fetus. The major steroid produced by the fetal adrenal zone is sulfoconjugated dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEAS). The majority of cortisol present in the fetal circulation appears to be of maternal origin, at least in the nonhuman primate. The fetal adrenal uses the large amounts of progesterone supplied by the placenta to make cortisol. Another source of cortisol for the fetus is the amniotic fluid where cortisol converted from cortisone by the choriodecidua, is found. In humans, maternal plasma CRH, ACTH, and cortisol levels increase during normal labor and drop at about four days postpartum; however, maternal ACTH and cortisol levels at this stage are not correlated. In sheep, placental CRH stimulates the fetal production of ACTH, which in turn leads to a surge of fetal cortisol secretion that precipitates parturition. The 10-day-long intravenous administration of antalarmin, a CRH receptor antagonist, significantly prolonged gestation compared to the control group of animals. Thus, CRH receptor antagonism in the fetus can also delay parturition. The HPA axis during the postpartum period gradually recovers from its activated state during pregnancy. The adrenals are mildly suppressed in a way analogous to postcure Cushing's syndrome. Provocation testing has shown that hypothalamic CRH secretion is transiently suppriently suppressed at three and six weeks postpartum, normalizing at 12 weeks.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism*
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development
  • Female
  • Fetus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange / physiology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Postpartum Period
  • Pregnancy / physiology*
  • Pregnancy Outcome
  • Puerperal Disorders / physiopathology
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone