Sex-specific effects of prenatal stress on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responses to stress and brain glucocorticoid receptor density in adult rats

Brain Res Dev Brain Res. 1995 Jan 14;84(1):55-61. doi: 10.1016/0165-3806(94)00153-q.


Previous research indicates that the offspring of dams exposed to stress during late gestation show altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) responses to stress. However, the results are inconsistent and a review of the literature suggests that the effects may differ depending upon the gender of the offspring. In the present study, we measured plasma adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) and corticosterone (B) levels prior to, and at 0, 20, 40 and 70 min following restraint stress in catheterized adult male and female offspring of dams stressed in the last week of gestation (i.e. days 15-19 of gestation). Prenatal stress significantly increased both plasma ACTH and B levels in response to restraint, but only in females; male offspring were largely unaffected. In addition, plasma corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG) levels were significantly increased in prenatally-stressed females, but not in males. Despite these differences in plasma CBG, estimated free B levels following restraint were also significantly elevated in prenatally-stressed females. We then examined glucocorticoid receptor binding in a variety of forebrain structures. Prenatal stress had no effect on glucocorticoid receptor density in the hypothalamus or hippocampus in either males or females. Differences in glucocorticoid receptor density across groups were observed in the septum, frontal cortex, and amygdala. However, the pattern of observed differences across the groups was not consistent with the pattern of hormonal differences. In summary, the effect of prenatal stress on HPA function is substantially more marked in females than in males. Interestingly, a similar pattern of effects on HPA activity has been reported for prenatal alcohol exposure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Female
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Male
  • Radioimmunoassay
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / physiology*
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Stress, Physiological


  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Corticosterone