Long-term effects of prenatal stress and glucocorticoid exposure

Rebecca C Painter, Tessa J Roseboom, Susanne R de Rooij

Research output: Contribution to JournalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that events during prenatal life can have long-lasting effects on development and adult health. Stress during pregnancy is common and has been linked to increased incidence of a range of affective and behavioral outcomes in the offspring in later life and also some somatic outcomes. Glucocorticoids, and their actions on the fetus, which are regulated by placental 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (11β-HSD2), are hypothesized to mediate these effects. Animal studies have demonstrated long-term effects of stress and glucocorticoid administration on behavioral outcomes, as well as increased blood pressure, altered hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA) function, and decreased glucose tolerance and brain size. In humans, licorice, which inhibits placental 11β-HSD2 when consumed during pregnancy, has been shown to increase the risk of behavioral problems linked to altered HPA activity. Synthetic glucocorticoids administered during pregnancy to improve fetal lung maturity in threatened preterm birth have been shown to reduce birth weight and head circumference, but have not been linked to gross changes in long-term health to date. It is important to consider the long-term consequences of stress, and medication that mimics stress, during pregnancy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)315-24
Number of pages10
JournalBirth defects research part c-embryo today-reviews
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012


  • 11-beta-Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 2
  • Animals
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Fetal Development
  • Fetus
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System
  • Placenta
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Stress, Physiological
  • Time Factors
  • Journal Article
  • Review


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