Fetal programming of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis: low birth weight and central HPA regulation

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004 Mar;89(3):1227-33. doi: 10.1210/jc.2003-030978.


Fetal programming of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis has been proposed as an intermediary in the association between reduced fetal growth and adult cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Previous studies have shown that small size at birth is associated with increased fasting plasma cortisol and adrenal responsiveness to ACTH stimulation. We have extended these studies by evaluating the salivary cortisol response to awakening and plasma ACTH and cortisol responses to CRH stimulation and a dexamethasone-suppressed CRH (DEX/CRH) test in a group of low birth weight [LBW; <3.18 kg (7 lb), n = 58] and high birth weight [>3.86 kg (8.5 lb), n = 65] men aged 60-69 yr. Despite no difference in basal pituitary-adrenal activity or in their ACTH and cortisol responses to CRH, LBW men had significantly lower pituitary-adrenal responses in the DEX/CRH test. Although these findings do not explain the HPA abnormalities associated with LBW in previous studies, they provide further evidence of dysregulation of the HPA axis in people who were small at birth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Aged
  • Cohort Studies
  • Dexamethasone
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / embryology
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / growth & development
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Infant, Low Birth Weight / physiology*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / embryology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / growth & development
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Saliva / metabolism


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Dexamethasone
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone