American journal of obstetrics and gynecology

Role of catecholamines in maternal-fetal stress transfer in sheep.

PMID 26212181


We sought to evaluate whether in addition to cortisol, catecholamines also transfer psychosocial stress indirectly to the fetus by decreasing uterine blood flow (UBF) and increasing fetal anaerobic metabolism and stress hormones. Seven pregnant sheep chronically instrumented with uterine ultrasound flow probes and catheters at 0.77 gestation underwent 2 hours of psychosocial stress by isolation. We used adrenergic blockade with labetalol to examine whether decreased UBF is catecholamine mediated and to determine to what extent stress transfer from mother to fetus is catecholamine dependent. Stress induced transient increases in maternal cortisol and norepinephrine (NE). Maximum fetal plasma cortisol concentrations were 8.1 ± 2.1% of those in the mother suggesting its maternal origin. In parallel to the maternal NE increase, UBF decreased by maximum 22% for 30 minutes (P < .05). Fetal NE remained elevated for >2 hours accompanied by a prolonged blood pressure increase (P < .05). Fetuses developed a delayed and prolonged shift toward anaerobic metabolism in the presence of an unaltered oxygen supply. Adrenergic blockade prevented the stress-induced UBF decrease and, consequently, the fetal NE and blood pressure increase and the shift toward anaerobic metabolism. We conclude that catecholamine-induced decrease of UBF is a mechanism of maternal-fetal stress transfer. It may explain the influence of maternal stress on fetal development and on programming of adverse health outcomes in later life especially during early pregnancy when fetal glucocorticoid receptor expression is limited.