Objective: Corticotropin releasing hormone, a hypothalamic neuropeptide, plays a major role in regulating pituitary-adrenal function and the physiologic response to stress. During pregnancy corticotropin-releasing hormone is synthesized in large amounts by the placenta and released into the maternal and fetal circulations. Various endocrine, autocrine, and paracrine roles have been suggested for placental corticotropin-releasing hormone. The aim of this study was to prospectively assess the relationship between maternal plasma concentrations of corticotropin-releasing hormone in the early third trimester of pregnancy and the length of gestation in two groups of deliveries, with and without spontaneous labor.
Study design: In a sample of 63 women with singleton intrauterine pregnancies, maternal plasma samples were collected between 28 and 30 weeks' gestation and corticotropin-releasing hormone concentrations were determined by radioimmunoassay. Each pregnancy was dated on the basis of last menstrual period and early ultrasonography. Parity, antepartum risk conditions, presence or absence of spontaneous labor, and birth outcomes were abstracted from the medical record.
Results: Maternal corticotropin-releasing hormone levels between 28 and 30 weeks' gestation significantly and negatively predicted gestational length (P < .01) after adjustment for antepartum risk. Moreover, subjects who were delivered preterm had significantly higher corticotropin-releasing hormone levels in the early third trimester (P < .01) than did those who were delivered at term. In deliveries preceded by spontaneous onset of labor, maternal third-trimester corticotropin-releasing hormone levels significantly and independently predicted earlier onset of labor (P < .01) and preterm labor (P < .05), whereas in deliveries effected by induction of labor or cesarean delivery, maternal corticotropin-releasing hormone levels were a marker of antepartum risk but not a statistically independent predictor of gestational length.
Conclusion: These findings support the premise that placental corticotropin-releasing hormone is potentially implicated in the timing of human delivery in at least two ways. First, placental corticotropin-releasing hormone may play a role in the physiology of parturition. Premature or accelerated activation of the placental corticotropin-releasing hormone system, as reflected by precocious elevation of maternal corticotropin-releasing hormone levels, may therefore be associated with earlier onset of spontaneous labor and resultant delivery. Second, placental corticotropin-releasing hormone may be a marker of antepartum risk for preterm delivery and therefore an indirect predictor of earlier delivery. The implications of these findings are discussed in the context of the neuroendocrinology of placental corticotropin-releasing hormone and human parturition. Furthermore, the role of corticotropin-releasing hormone as a possible effector of prenatal stress in producing alterations in the timing of normal delivery is detailed.