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Glucocorticoids, prenatal stress and the programming of disease.

ABSTRACT

An adverse foetal environment is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular, metabolic, neuroendocrine and psychological disorders in adulthood. Exposure to stress and its glucocorticoid hormone mediators may underpin this association. In humans and in animal models, prenatal stress, excess exogenous glucocorticoids or inhibition of 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (HSD2; the placental barrier to maternal glucocorticoids) reduces birth weight and causes hyperglycemia, hypertension, increased HPA axis reactivity, and increased anxiety-related behaviour. Molecular mechanisms that underlie the 'developmental programming' effects of excess glucocorticoids/prenatal stress include epigenetic changes in target gene promoters. In the case of the intracellular glucocorticoid receptor (GR), this alters tissue-specific GR expression levels, which has persistent and profound effects on glucocorticoid signalling in certain tissues (e.g. brain, liver, and adipose). Crucially, changes in gene expression persist long after the initial challenge, predisposing the individual to disease in later life. Intriguingly, the effects of a challenged pregnancy appear to be transmitted possibly to one or two subsequent generations, suggesting that these epigenetic effects persist.