Attenuated neuroendocrine responses to emotional and physical stressors in pregnant rats involve adenohypophysial changes


Corresponding author I. D. Neumann: Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Kraepelinstrasse 2, D 80804 Munich, Germany. Email: INEU@MPIPSYKL.MPG.DE


  • 1The responsiveness of the rat hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and hypothalamo-neurohypophysial system (HNS) to emotional (elevated plus-maze) and physical (forced swimming) stressors and to administration of synthetic corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) was investigated during pregnancy and lactation. In addition to pregnancy-related adaptations at the adenohypophysial level, behavioural responses accompanying the neuroendocrine changes were studied.
  • 2Whereas basal (a.m.) plasma corticosterone, but not corticotrophin (adrenocorticotrophic hormone; ACTH), levels were increased on the last day (i.e. on day 22) of pregnancy, the stress-induced rise in both plasma hormone concentrations was increasingly attenuated with the progression of pregnancy beginning on day 15 and reaching a minimum on day 21 compared with virgin control rats. A similar attenuation of responses to both emotional and physical stressors was found in lactating rats.
  • 3Although the basal plasma oxytocin concentration was elevated in late pregnancy, the stress-induced rise in oxytocin secretion was slightly lower in day 21 pregnant rats. In contrast to vasopressin, oxytocin secretion was increased by forced swimming in virgin and early pregnant rats indicating a differential stress response of these neurohypophysial hormones.
  • 4The blunted HPA response to stressful stimuli is partly due to alterations at the level of corticotrophs in the adenohypophysis, as ACTH secretion in response to CRH in vivo (40 ng kg−1, i.v.) was reduced with the progression of pregnancy and during lactation. In vitro measurement of cAMP levels in pituitary segments demonstrated reduced basal levels of cAMP and a lower increase after CRH stimulation (10 nM, 10 min) in day 21 pregnant compared with virgin rats, further indicating reduced corticotroph responsiveness to CRH in pregnancy.
  • 5The reduced pituitary response to CRH in late pregnancy is likely to be a consequence of a reduction in CRH receptor binding as revealed by receptor autoradiography. [125I] CRH binding in the anterior pituitary was significantly reduced in day 11, 17 and 22 pregnant rats compared with virgin controls.
  • 6Anxiety-related behaviour of the animals as revealed by the time on and entries into the open arms of the elevated plus-maze was different between virgin and pregnant rats with decreased number of entries indicating increased anxiety with the progression of pregnancy (except on pregnancy day 18). The emotional behaviour, however, was not correlated with the neuroendocrine responses.
  • 7The results indicate that the reduced response of the HPA axis to stressors described previously during lactation is already manifested around day 15 of pregnancy in the rat and involves physiological adaptations at the adenohypophysial level. However, alterations in stressor perception at higher brain levels with the progression of pregnancy may also be involved.