Prenatal cortisol exposure predicts infant cortisol response to acute stress

Authors

  • Thomas G. O'Connor,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychiatry, Wynne Center for Family Research, University of Rochester Medical Center, 300 Crittenden Blvd, Rochester, New York 14642
    • Department of Psychiatry, Wynne Center for Family Research, University of Rochester Medical Center, 300 Crittenden Blvd, Rochester, New York 14642.
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  • Kristin Bergman,

    1. Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, Imperial College London, Hammersmith Campus, Du Cane Road, London W12 0NN, UK
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  • Pampa Sarkar,

    1. Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, Imperial College London, Hammersmith Campus, Du Cane Road, London W12 0NN, UK
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  • Vivette Glover

    1. Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, Imperial College London, Hammersmith Campus, Du Cane Road, London W12 0NN, UK
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  • Conflict of interest: All authors declare no conflict of interest.

Abstract

Experimental animal findings suggest that early stress and glucocorticoid exposure may program the function of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis in the offspring. The extension of these findings to human development is not yet clear. A prospective longitudinal study was conducted on 125 mothers and their normally developing children. Amniotic fluid was obtained at, on average, 17.2 weeks gestation; infant behavior and cortisol response to a separation–reunion stress was assessed at 17 months. Amniotic fluid cortisol predicted infant cortisol response to separation–reunion stress: infants who were exposed to higher levels of cortisol in utero showed higher pre-stress cortisol values and blunted response to stress exposure. The association was independent of prenatal, obstetric, and socioeconomic factors and child–parent attachment. The findings provide some of the strongest data in humans that HPA axis functioning in the child may be predicted from prenatal cortisol exposure. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychobiol 55: 145–155, 2013

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