Stress exposure during pregnancy can 'programme' adult behaviour and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis stress responsiveness. In the present study, we utilised an ethologically relevant social stressor to model the type of stress that pregnant women may experience. We investigated the effects of social defeat by a resident lactating rat over 5 days during the last week of pregnancy on the pregnant intruder rat HPA axis, and on HPA responsivity to stress and anxiety-related behaviour in the adult offspring of the socially-defeated intruder rats. HPA axis responses after social defeat were attenuated in the pregnant rats compared to virgin females. In the adult offspring, systemic interleukin (IL)-1beta or restraint increased adrenocorticotrophic hormone and corticosterone secretion in male and female control rats; however, in prenatally stressed (PNS) offspring, HPA responses were greatly enhanced and peak hormone responses to IL-1beta were greater in females versus males. Male PNS rats displayed increased anxiety behaviour on the elevated plus maze; however, despite marked changes in anxiety behaviour across the oestrous cycle, there were no differences between female control and PNS rats. Investigation of possible mechanisms showed mineralocorticoid mRNA levels were reduced in the hippocampus of male and female PNS offspring, whereas glucocorticoid receptor mRNA expression was modestly reduced in the CA2 hippocampal subfield in female PNS rats only. Corticotropin-releasing hormone mRNA and glucocorticoid receptor mRNA expression in the central amygdala was greater in PNS males and females compared to controls. The data obtained in the present study indicate that prenatal social stress differentially programmes anxiety behaviour and HPA axis responses to stress in male and female offspring. Attenuated glucocorticoid feedback mechanisms in the limbic system may underlie HPA axis hyper-reactivity to stress in PNS offspring.
A successful pregnancy requires multiple adaptations of the mother's physiology to optimize fetal growth and development, to protect the fetus from adverse programming, to provide impetus for timely parturition and to ensure that adequate maternal care is provided after parturition. Many of these adaptations are organized by the mother's brain, predominantly through changes in neuroendocrine systems, and these changes are primarily driven by the hormones of pregnancy. By contrast, adaptations in the mother's brain during lactation are maintained by external stimuli from the young. The changes in pregnancy are not necessarily innocuous: they may predispose the mother to post-partum mood disorders.
During the perinatal period, the brain is particularly sensitive to remodelling by environmental factors. Adverse early-life experiences, such as stress exposure or suboptimal maternal care, can have long-lasting detrimental consequences for an individual. This phenomenon is often referred to as 'early-life programming' and is associated with an increased risk of disease. Typically, rodents exposed to prenatal stress or postnatal maternal deprivation display enhanced neuroendocrine responses to stress, increased levels of anxiety and depressive-like behaviours, and cognitive impairments. Some of the phenotypes observed in these models of early-life adversity are likely to share common neurobiological mechanisms. For example, there is evidence for impaired glucocorticoid negative-feedback control of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, altered glutamate neurotransmission and reduced hippocampal neurogenesis in both prenatally stressed rats and rats that experienced deficient maternal care. The possible mechanisms through which maternal stress during pregnancy may be transmitted to the offspring are reviewed, with special consideration given to altered maternal behaviour postpartum. We also discuss what is known about the neurobiological and epigenetic mechanisms that underpin early-life programming of the neonatal brain in the first generation and subsequent generations, with a view to abrogating programming effects and potentially identifying new therapeutic targets for the treatment of stress-related disorders and cognitive impairment.
Pregnancy and lactation have been shown over the last 40 years to be physiological states in which hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis responses to stressors are markedly attenuated (1, 2). These phenomena provide an unequalled opportunity to understand natural mechanisms that reduce stress responses, and the prospect of new therapies for stress-related disorders.The (HPA) axis comprises the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neurones in the parvocellular paraventricular nucleus (pPVN), which also variably produce vasopressin and project to the external zone of the median eminence. These neurosecretory neurones release their peptides into the primary capillary plexus of the hypothalamic-hypophysial portal system to act respectively on the CRF1 and V1b receptors on the corticotrophs in the anterior pituitary gland (3, 4). The consequent stimulation of secretion of corticotropin [adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH); a product of pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC)], leads to increased synthesis and secretion of glucocorticoid (cortisol in humans and other species; corticosterone in rodents) by the adrenal cortex. Glucocorticoids have powerful actions on metabolism and immune mechanisms (5, 6). The HPA axis is regulated by tonic glucocorticoid feedback (7) [involving mineralocorticoid receptors (MR) in the hippocampus, and glucocorticoid receptors (GR) in the brain and corticotrophs], by metabolic signals (8) (including from adipose tissue), and the circadian clock in the suprachiasmatic nuclei (9). Over the past 40 years, it has been recognised that the maternal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis undergoes adaptations through pregnancy and lactation that might contribute to avoidance of adverse effects of stress on the mother and offspring. The extent of the global adaptations in the HPA axis has been revealed and the underlying mechanisms investigated within the last 20 years. Both basal, including the circadian rhythm, and stress-induced adrenocorticotrophic hormone and glucocorticoid secretory patterns are altered. Throughout most of pregnancy, and in lactation, these changes predominantly reflect reduced drive by the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neurones in the parvocellular paraventricular nucleus (pPVN). An accompanying profound attenuation of HPA axis responses to a wide variety of psychological and physical stressors emerges after mid-pregnancy and persists until the end of lactation. Central to this suppression of stress responsiveness is reduced activation of the pPVN CRF neurones. This is consequent on the reduced effectiveness of the stimulation of brainstem afferents to these CRF neurones (for physical stressors) and of altered processing by limbic structures (for emotional stressors). The mechanism of reduced CRF neurone responses to physical stressors in pregnancy is the suppression of noradrenaline release in the PVN by an up-regulated endogenous opioid mechanism, which is induced by neuroactive steroid produced from progesterone. By contrast, in lactation suckling the young provides...
The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the major neuroendocrine stress response system. Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurons in the parvocellular paraventricular nucleus (pPVN) play a key role in coordinating responses of this system to stressors. The cytokine interleukin-1␤ (IL-1␤), mimicking infection, robustly activates these CRH neurons via a noradrenergic input arising from the nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS). In late pregnancy, HPA axis responses to stressors, including IL-1␤, are attenuated by a central opioid mechanism that auto-inhibits noradrenaline release in the PVN. Here we show that the neuroactive progesterone metabolite allopregnanolone induces these changes in HPA responsiveness to IL-1␤ in pregnancy. In late pregnancy, inhibition of 5␣-reductase (an allopregnanolone-synthesizing enzyme) with finasteride restored HPA axis responses (rapidly increased pPVN CRH mRNA expression, ACTH, and corticosterone secretion) to IL-1␤. Conversely, allopregnanolone reduced HPA responses in virgin rats. In late pregnancy, activity of the allopregnanolone-synthesizing enzymes (5␣-reductase and 3␣-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase) was increased in the hypothalamus as was mRNA expression in the NTS and PVN. Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, restores HPA axis responses to IL-1␤ in pregnancy but had no additional effect after finasteride, indicating a causal connection between allopregnanolone and the endogenous opioid mechanism. Indeed, allopregnanolone induced opioid inhibition over HPA responses to IL-1␤ in virgin rats. Furthermore, in virgin rats, allopregnanolone treatment increased, whereas in pregnant rats finasteride decreased proenkephalin-A mRNA expression in the NTS. Thus, in pregnancy, allopregnanolone induces opioid inhibition over HPA axis responses to immune challenge. This novel opioid-mediated mechanism of allopregnanolone action may alter regulation of other brain systems in pregnancy.
A suboptimal in utero environment, for example, as a result of maternal stress, can have detrimental effects on the pregnancy and long-term adverse 'programming' effects on the offspring. This article focuses on the effects of prenatal social stress on the mother, her pregnancy and the offspring, since these issues have ethological relevance in both animals and humans. The consequences of social stress exposure depend on when during pregnancy the stress occurs, and many of the effects on the offspring are sex specific. Social stress during early pregnancy tends to result in pregnancy loss, whereas stress exposure later in pregnancy, when the mother has already invested considerable resources in the foetuses, results in programmed offspring of low birth weight: a risk factor for various adulthood diseases. Neuroendocrine and behavioural responses to stress in the offspring are particularly sensitive to foetal programming by prenatal stress, indicated by enhanced hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis responses and increased anxiety behaviour, which result from permanent changes in the offspring's brain. The dysregulation of HPA axis function may also interfere with other systems, for example, the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, as there is evidence for alterations in steroidogenesis, reproductive potential and impaired reproductive/social behaviours in prenatally stressed offspring. Prenatal social stress also programmes future maternal behaviour, highlighting the potential for negative phenotypes to be transmitted to future generations. The possible mechanisms through which maternal stress during pregnancy is transmitted to the foetuses and the foetal brain is programmed by prenatal stress and the potential to overwrite programming of the offspring are discussed.Reproduction (2013) 146 R175-R189
Hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis secretory responses to stress were compared in female virgin, late pregnant, parturient, and lactating mice. The basal plasma ACTH concentration was not different in pregnancy or lactation compared with virgins, but corticosterone concentration and corticosteroid-binding globulin capacity were greatly elevated in late pregnancy. Secretory responses to novel environment were attenuated in pregnant, but not lactating, mice compared with virgin females, whereas ACTH responses to forced swimming were attenuated in both groups. The expression of immediate early gene (nur77) mRNA increased in paraventricular nucleus neurons after stress exposure in virgin and lactating, but not pregnant, mice. During parturition, the basal ACTH concentration was similar to virgin and pregnant controls and did not increase with stress. Oxytocin secretion in response to either novel environment or forced swimming was unchanged in any reproductive group, whereas vasopressin secretion was decreased by both stressors, but only in virgins. Pretreatment with oxytocin receptor antagonist centrally had no effect on ACTH responses to stress in either virgin or pregnant mice. Pretreatment with an opioid receptor antagonist increased ACTH responses to stress in virgin mice, indicating opioid inhibition, but had no effect in pregnancy. Thus, in mice hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal hyporesponsiveness in late pregnancy is a consequence of reduced responsiveness of paraventricular neurons, but inhibition by opioids or intracerebral oxytocin does not appear to be involved.
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