The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis is a major neuroendocrine pathway that modulates the stress response. The glucocorticoid, cortisol, is the principal end product of the HPA axis in humans and plays a fundamental role in maintaining homeostasis and in fetal maturation and development. Antenatal administration of synthetic glucocorticoids (GCs) accelerates fetal lung maturation and has significantly decreased neonatal mortality and morbidity in infants born before 34 weeks of gestation. Exposure to excess levels of endogenous GCs and exogenous GCs (betamethasone and dexamethasone) has been shown to alter the normal development trajectory. The development and regulation of the fetal HPA axis is discussed and the experimental animal evidence presented suggests long-term adverse consequences of altered HPA function. The clinical data in infants exposed to GCs also suggest altered HPA axis function over the short term. The longer-term consequences of antenatal GC exposure on HPA axis function and subtler neurodevelopmental outcomes including adaptation to stress, cognition, behavior, and the cardiovascular and immune responses are poorly understood. Emerging clinical strategies and interventions may help in the selection of mothers at risk for preterm delivery who would benefit from existing or future formulations of antenatal GCs with a reduction in the associated risk to the fetus and newborn. Detailed longitudinal long-term follow-up of those infants exposed to synthetic GCs are needed.
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