Early-life adverse experiences, including prenatal stress (PNS), are associated with a higher prevalence of neurodevelopmental, cardiovascular and metabolic disorders in affected offspring. Here, in a rat model of chronic PNS, we investigate the impact of late gestational stress on physiological outcomes in adulthood. Sprague-Dawley pregnant dams were subjected to repeated restraint stress from embryonic day 14 to day 20, and their male offspring were assessed at 4 months of age. PNS induced an exaggeration of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response to stress, as well as an elevation of blood pressure and impairment of cognitive function. Altered respiratory control was also observed, as demonstrated by increased variability in basal respiratory frequency and abnormal frequency responses to both hypoxic and hypercapnic challenges. PNS also affected gastrointestinal neurodevelopment and function, as measured by a decrease in the innervation density of distal colon and an increase in the colonic secretory response to catecholaminergic stimulation. Finally, PNS induced long lasting alterations in the intestinal microbiota composition. 16S rRNA gene 454 pyrosequencing revealed a strong trend towards decreased numbers of bacteria in the Lactobacillus genus, accompanied by elevated abundance of the Oscillibacter, Anaerotruncus and Peptococcus genera in PNS animals. Strikingly, relative abundance of distinct bacteria genera significantly correlated with certain respiratory parameters and the responsiveness of the HPA axis to stress. Together, these findings provide novel evidence that PNS induces long-term maladaptive alterations in the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems, accompanied by hyper-responsiveness to stress and alterations in the gut microbiota.
Keywords: Gut microbiota; HPA axis; Intestinal innervation; Maternal stress; Respiratory control.
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