Brooks AN, Hagan DM, Howe DC. Neuroendocrine regulation of pituitary–adrenal function during fetal life. Eur J Endocrinol 1996;135:153–65. ISSN 0804–4643
During late gestation there is a rise in the concentration of corticosteroids in the fetal circulation that is essential for the coordinated maturation of many fetal organ systems and is a key component in the endocrine pathway leading to the onset of birth. Fetal plasma concentrations of adrenocorticotrophin (ACTH) increase during late, gestation and this rise precedes the increase in plasma corticosteroids. Paradoxically, ACTH and cortisol concentrations increase concomitantly even though cortisol would normally be expected to exert negative feedback effects to inhibit pituitary ACTH secretion. Elucidating the neuroendocrine signals that cause the increase in fetal ACTH, despite the elevated concentrations of cortisol at this time, will therefore provide vital clues as to the trigger for fetal organ maturation and birth. This article describes the normal ontogeny of the hypothalamo–pituitary–adrenal axis, discusses the neuroendocrine signals that trigger the increase in fetal ACTH secretion and provides potential explanations for the concomitant rise in ACTH and cortisol.
AN Brooks, MRC Reproductive Biology Unit, 37 Chalmers Street, Edinburgh, EH3 9EW, Scotland, UK