Effects of intrauterine exposure to synthetic glucocorticoids on fetal, newborn, and infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function in humans: a systematic review

Endocr Rev. 2009 Dec;30(7):753-89. doi: 10.1210/er.2008-0014. Epub 2009 Oct 16.


Background: Synthetic glucocorticoids are commonly used in reproductive medicine. Fetal organ systems are highly sensitive to changes in the intrauterine environment, including overexposure to glucocorticoids. Structural and functional alterations resulting from such changes may persist throughout life and have been associated with diverse diseases. One system that could be particularly sensitive to fetal glucocorticoid overexposure is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (hpa) axis. Many human studies have investigated this possibility, but a systematic review to identify consistent, emergent findings is lacking.

Methods: We systematically review 49 human studies, assessing the effects of intrauterine exposure to synthetic glucocorticoids on fetal, neonate, and infant hpa function.

Results: Study quality varied considerably, but the main findings held true after restricting the analyses to higher-quality studies: intrauterine exposure to synthetic glucocorticoids reduces offspring hpa activity under unstimulated conditions after pain but not pharmacological challenge. Although reduced unstimulated hpa function appears to recover within the first 2 wk postpartum, blunted hpa reactivity to pain is likely to persist throughout the first 4 months of life. There is some evidence that the magnitude of the effects is correlated with the total amount of glucocorticoids administered and varies with the time interval between glucocorticoid exposure and hpa assessment.

Conclusions: This systematic review has allowed the demonstration of the way in which intrauterine exposure to various regimens of synthetic glucocorticoids affects various forms of hpa function. As such, it guides future studies in terms of which variables need to be focused on in order to further strengthen the understanding of such therapy, whilst continuing to profit from its clinical benefits.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Fetus
  • Glucocorticoids / adverse effects
  • Glucocorticoids / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / drug effects*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / drug effects*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / physiology*


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid