1. The intra-uterine environment is now believed to play a major role in the origin of many adult diseases. Illnesses in which there is significant 'programming' before the time of birth include hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke. Acting on a genetic predisposition, intra-uterine triggers appear to programme the individual's metabolism and endocrine milieu and, after birth, these risk factors are then either amplified or minimized by environmental influences. The triggers operative during fetal life that have been studied most extensively are undernutrition and glucocorticoid exposure.2. Over the past decade, a series of studies in sheep have focused on the perinatal and life-long consequences of glucocorticoid exposure in mid- to late-pregnancy. These studies in the sheep model have shown that maternal injections with glucocorticoids, in a manner similar to clinical treatment for women at risk of preterm birth, enhance fetal lung maturation, but were also associated with developmental and other functional alterations that are of concern. With weekly doses to the mother, there is restricted fetal growth, delayed myelination of the central nervous system, altered blood pressure soon after birth and increased insulin response to glucose challenge in early adulthood. If the glucocorticoids are given to the fetus by ultrasound-guided intramuscular injection, rather than to the mother, the effects on lung maturation are similar, but growth is spared and blood pressure after birth is unaltered. Increased insulin response to glucose challenge occurs in early adulthood with glucocorticoid by either route and is independent of growth restriction.3. The findings in experimental animals are supported by studies of children in the Western Australian Preterm Infant Follow-up Study. Multivariate analyses have shown that increasing the number of glucocorticoid exposures, for the purpose of enhancing lung maturation prior to preterm birth, is associated with reduced birthweight and behavioural disorders at 3 years of age.4. The results of these animal and clinical studies provide further support for a role of prenatal glucocorticoid exposure in triggering predisposition to adult disease. Further exploration of these models is expected to uncover the mechanisms and lead to effective strategies that may underpin clinical interventions.
|Journal||Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology|
|Publication status||Published - 2001|