Natural disaster-related prenatal maternal stress is associated with alterations in placental glucocorticoid system: The QF2011 Queensland Flood Study

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Aug;94:38-48. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.04.027. Epub 2018 Apr 26.


We investigated the effects of a natural disaster (a sudden flood) as a source of prenatal maternal stress (PNMS) on the placental glucocorticoid system and glucose transporters. Whether the gestational age at the time of the flood moderated these effects was also evaluated. Placental samples were collected from participants in the 2011 Queensland Flood Study (QF2011) who were pregnant in the first or second trimester at the onset of the flood. Detailed questionnaire results for objective hardship and composite subjective distress were obtained to assess stress levels. Subjective distress was significantly associated with a reduction in placental NR3C1-β mRNA levels for males only (β = -0.491, p = 0.005). In female placentas, objective hardship was marginally linked with lower SLC2A1 mRNA levels while subjective distress was a marginally significant predictor of higher placental SLC2A4 mRNA levels. Gestational age at the time of the flood was a significant moderator of the effect of subjective distress on placental mRNA levels for NR3C1-α (p = 0.046) and HSD11B1 (p = 0.049) in male placentas: if the flood occurred in mid-pregnancy, lower subjective distress predicted higher HSD11B1 while higher subjective distress predicted lower NR3C1-α placental mRNA level. While results did not show any PNMS effects on placental HSD11B2 mRNA and protein levels, and activity, we showed a reduction in placental NR3C1-β mRNA level in male placentas. Our results show evidence of distinct placental glucocorticoid and glucose systems adaptations to PNMS as a function of fetal sex and gestational timing of exposure, with high subjective PNMS in mid-pregnancy associated with lower levels of expression of glucocorticoid-promoting gene in males, leaving the fetus less protected against maternal stress. The exact mechanism by which natural disaster-related PNMS acts on the placenta and the impact on fetal programming requires further investigation.

Keywords: Gestational age of exposure; Glucocorticoid receptors; Glucose transporter; Pregnancy; Sex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • 11-beta-Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 2 / metabolism
  • Disasters
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / physiology
  • Floods
  • Gestational Age
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Natural Disasters
  • Placenta / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / metabolism*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology
  • Queensland
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / metabolism
  • Sex Factors
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*


  • Glucocorticoids
  • NR3C1 protein, human
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • 11-beta-Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 2