• betamethasone;
  • neuroactive steroid;
  • 5α-reductase;
  • intrauterine growth restriction;
  • guinea pig

There are ongoing concerns that antenatal corticosteroids, which are administered to women at high risk of delivering preterm to reduce the incidence of respiratory distress syndrome, have adverse effects on foetal brain development and subsequent effects on behaviour and learning, when administered as repeated courses. The present study aimed to examine whether repeated betamethasone treatment alters the expression of the key-rate limiting enzyme, 5α-reductase, in the synthetic pathway of the potent neuroactive steroid allopregnanolone in the brain and placenta and whether this effect is potentiated in growth restricted foetuses. To investigate this, pregnant guinea pigs carrying either control (sham surgery) or growth-restricted foetuses were treated with vehicle or betamethasone (1 mg/kg/day) for 4 days prior to sacrifice (65d). Placental insufficiency was induced by the ablation of uterine artery branches supplying each placenta at mid gestation, resulting in foetal growth restriction characterised by ‘brain sparing’. Real-time reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction was used to determine relative 5α-reductase type 1 and 2 mRNA expression in the placenta and brain. Immunohistochemistry was used to examine the glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) expression in the subcortical white matter, CA1 and dentate regions of the hippocampus. 5α-reductase type 2 mRNA expression in the brain was markedly reduced by betamethasone treatment in male foetuses compared to vehicle-treated controls but not in female foetuses. In addition, 5α-reductase type 1 expression in the brain was increased by growth restriction and/or betamethasone treatment in female foetuses but expression in males foetuses did not increase. 5α-reductase type 2 expression in the placenta was markedly reduced by betamethasone treatment compared to vehicle-treated control. Intrauterine growth restriction and betamethasone treatment reduced GFAP expression in the CA1 region of the hippocampus in the brains of male but not female foetuses. These data indicate that betamethasone treatment suppresses placental expression and has sexually dimorphic effects on expression of neuroactive steroid synthetic enzymes in the brain. These actions may lead to adverse effects on the developing brain, particularly in male foetuses, such as the observed effects on GFAP expression.