Maternal hypercortisolemia alters placental metabolism: a multiomics view

Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2020 Nov 1;319(5):E950-E960. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00190.2020. Epub 2020 Sep 21.


Previous studies have suggested that increases in maternal cortisol or maternal stress in late pregnancy increase the risk of stillbirth at term. In an ovine model with increased maternal cortisol over the last 0.20 of gestation, we have previously found evidence of disruption of fetal serum and cardiac metabolomics and altered expression of genes related to mitochondrial function and metabolism in biceps femoris, diaphragm, and cardiac muscle. The present studies were designed to test for effects of chronically increased maternal cortisol on gene expression and metabolomics in placentomes near term. We hypothesized that changes in placenta might underlie or contribute to the alterations in fetal serum metabolomics and thereby contribute to changes in striated muscle metabolism. Placentomes were collected from pregnancies in early labor (143 ± 1 days gestation) of control ewes (n = 7) or ewes treated with cortisol (1 mg·kg-1·day-1 iv; n = 5) starting at day 115 of gestation. Transcriptomics and metabolomics were performed using an ovine gene expression microarray (Agilent 019921) and HR-MAS NMR, respectively. Multiomic analysis indicates that amino acid metabolism, particularly of branched-chain amino acids and glutamate, occur in placenta; changes in amino acid metabolism, degradation, or biosynthesis in placenta were consistent with changes in valine, isoleucine, leucine, and glycine in fetal serum. The analysis also indicates changes in glycerophospholipid metabolism and suggests changes in endoplasmic reticulum stress and antioxidant status in the placenta. These findings suggest that changes in placental function occurring with excess maternal cortisol in late gestation may contribute to metabolic dysfunction at birth.

Keywords: cortisol; fetus; metabolism.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids, Branched-Chain / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Blood Glucose / metabolism
  • Cushing Syndrome / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Genomics
  • Hydrocortisone / pharmacology
  • Metabolomics
  • Mitochondria, Muscle / drug effects
  • Mitochondria, Muscle / genetics
  • Mitochondria, Muscle / metabolism
  • Placenta / metabolism*
  • Pregnancy
  • Sheep


  • Amino Acids, Branched-Chain
  • Blood Glucose
  • Hydrocortisone