Fetal programming of hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal function: prenatal stress and glucocorticoids

J Physiol. 2006 Apr 1;572(Pt 1):31-44. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2006.105254. Epub 2006 Feb 9.


Prenatal stress (PS) and maternal exposure to exogenous glucocorticoids can lead to permanent modification of hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function and stress-related behaviour. Both of these manipulations lead to increased fetal exposure to glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids are essential for many aspects of normal brain development, but exposure of the fetal brain to an excess of glucocorticoids can have life-long effects on neuroendocrine function. Both endogenous glucocorticoid and synthetic glucocorticoid exposure have a number of rapid effects in the fetal brain, including modification of neurotransmitter systems and transcriptional machinery. Such fetal exposure permanently alters HPA function in prepubertal, postpubertal and ageing offspring, in a sex-dependent manner. Prenatal stress and exogenous glucocorticoid manipulation also lead to the modification of behaviour, brain and organ morphology, as well as altered regulation of other endocrine systems. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that the timing of exposure to PS or synthetic glucocorticoids has tremendous effects on the nature of the phenotypic outcome. Permanent changes in endocrine function will ultimately impact on health in both human and animal populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Fetal Development
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / embryology*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / embryology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / metabolism
  • Stress, Physiological / embryology*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid