Objective There is increasing evidence that antenatal stress has long-lasting effects on child development, but there is less accord on the mechanisms and the gestational window of susceptibility. One possible mechanism is by foetal exposure to maternal cortisol. To explore this, we investigated the relationship between cortisol in maternal plasma and amniotic fluid, and any moderating influence of gestational age.
Patients and measurements Two hundred and sixty-seven women awaiting amniocentesis for karyotyping were studied. Samples were collected between 0900 and 1730 h. Gestational age was determined to the nearest day by ultrasound biometry and time of collection noted to the nearest 15 min. Total cortisol was measured by radioimmunoassay in paired amniotic fluid and maternal blood samples (n = 267) [gestation range 15–37 weeks, median 17 weeks (119 days)].
Results Both maternal and amniotic fluid cortisol levels increased with gestation (r = 0·25, P < 0·001; r = 0·33 P < 0·001, respectively). Amniotic fluid cortisol was positively correlated with time of collection (r = 0·22, P < 0·001) and negatively with maternal age (r =−0·24, P < 0·001). There was a positive correlation between amniotic fluid cortisol with maternal plasma levels (r = 0·32, P < 0·001), which persisted after multivariate analysis controlling for gestation, time of collection and maternal age. The association appeared to be dependent on gestational age, being nonsignificant at 15–16 weeks’ gestation and increasing in strength thereafter.
Conclusion This study shows a positive correlation between maternal and amniotic fluid cortisol levels, which becomes robust from 17 to 18 weeks onwards. The results provide support for the hypothesis that alterations in maternal cortisol may be reflected in amniotic fluid levels from this gestation.