Fetal glucocorticoid exposure is associated with preadolescent brain development

Biol Psychiatry. 2013 Nov 1;74(9):647-55. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.03.009. Epub 2013 Apr 21.


Background: Glucocorticoids play a critical role in normative regulation of fetal brain development. Exposure to excessive levels may have detrimental consequences and disrupt maturational processes. This may especially be true when synthetic glucocorticoids are administered during the fetal period, as they are to women in preterm labor. This study investigated the consequences for brain development and affective problems of fetal exposure to synthetic glucocorticoids.

Methods: Brain development and affective problems were evaluated in 54 children (56% female), aged 6 to 10, who were full term at birth. Children were recruited into two groups: those with and without fetal exposure to synthetic glucocorticoids. Structural magnetic resonance imaging scans were acquired and cortical thickness was determined. Child affective problems were assessed using the Child Behavior Checklist.

Results: Children in the fetal glucocorticoid exposure group showed significant and bilateral cortical thinning. The largest group differences were in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC). More than 30% of the rACC was thinner among children with fetal glucocorticoid exposure. Furthermore, children with more affective problems had a thinner left rACC.

Conclusions: Fetal exposure to synthetic glucocorticoids has neurologic consequences that persist for at least 6 to 10 years. Children with fetal glucocorticoid exposure had a thinner cortex primarily in the rACC. Our data indicating that the rACC is associated with affective problems in conjunction with evidence that this region is involved in affective disorders raise the possibility that glucocorticoid-associated neurologic changes increase vulnerability to mental health problems.

Keywords: Development; MRI; fetal programming; glucocorticoid; prenatal; stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Atrophy
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Female
  • Glucocorticoids / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mood Disorders / pathology
  • Mood Disorders / psychology
  • Neuroimaging
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / pathology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology*


  • Glucocorticoids