Background: The fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis plays a key role in the control of parturition and maturation of organ systems in preparation for birth. In hypothyroid fetuses, gestational length may be prolonged and maturational processes delayed. The extent to which the effects of thyroid hormone deficiency in utero on the timing of fetal maturation and parturition are mediated by changes to the structure and function of the fetal HPA axis is unknown.
Methods: In twin sheep pregnancies where one fetus was thyroidectomized and the other sham-operated, this study investigated the effect of hypothyroidism on circulating concentrations of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol, and the structure and secretory capacity of the anterior pituitary and adrenal glands. The relative population of pituitary corticotrophs and the masses of the adrenal zones were assessed by immunohistochemical and stereological techniques. Adrenal mRNA abundances of key steroidogenic enzymes and growth factors were examined by quantitative polymerase chain reaction.
Results: Hypothyroidism in utero reduced plasma concentrations of ACTH and cortisol. In thyroid-deficient fetuses, the mass of corticotrophs in the anterior pituitary gland was unexpectedly increased, while the mass of the zona fasciculata and its proportion of the adrenal gland were decreased. These structural changes were associated with lower adrenocortical mRNA abundances of insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I and its receptor, and key steroidogenic enzymes responsible for glucocorticoid synthesis. The relative mass of the adrenal medulla and its proportion of the adrenal gland were increased by thyroid hormone deficiency in utero, without any change in expression of phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase or the IGF system.
Conclusions: Thyroid hormones are important regulators of the structure and secretory capacity of the pituitary-adrenal axis before birth. In hypothyroid fetuses, low plasma cortisol may be due to impaired adrenocortical growth and steroidogenic enzyme expression, secondary to low circulating ACTH concentration. Greater corticotroph population in the anterior pituitary gland of the hypothyroid fetus indicates compensatory cell proliferation and that there may be abnormal corticotroph capacity for ACTH synthesis and/or impaired hypothalamic input. Suppression of the development of the fetal HPA axis by thyroid hormone deficiency may contribute to the delay in fetal maturation and delivery observed in hypothyroid offspring.