A physiological increase in maternal cortisol alters uteroplacental metabolism in the pregnant ewe

O. R. Vaughan, K. L. Davies, J. W. Ward, M. J. de Blasio, A. L. Fowden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Key points: Fetal nutrient supply is dependent, in part, upon the transport capacity and metabolism of the placenta. The stress hormone, cortisol, alters metabolism in the adult and fetus but it is not known whether cortisol in the pregnant mother affects metabolism of the placenta. In this study, when cortisol concentrations were raised in pregnant sheep by infusion, proportionately more of the glucose taken up by the uterus was consumed by the uteroplacental tissues while less was transferred to the fetus, despite an increased placental glucose transport capacity. Concomitantly, the uteroplacental tissues produced lactate at a greater rate. The results show that maternal cortisol concentrations regulate uteroplacental glycolytic metabolism, producing lactate for use in utero. Prolonged increases in placental lactate production induced by cortisol overexposure may contribute to the adverse effects of maternal stress on fetal wellbeing. Abstract: Fetal nutrition is determined by maternal availability, placental transport and uteroplacental metabolism of carbohydrates. Cortisol affects maternal and fetal metabolism, but whether maternal cortisol concentrations within the physiological range regulate uteroplacental carbohydrate metabolism remains unknown. This study determined the effect of maternal cortisol infusion (1.2 mg kg−1 day−1 i.v. for 5 days, n = 20) on fetal glucose, lactate and oxygen supplies in pregnant ewes on day ∼130 of pregnancy (term = 145 days). Compared to saline infusion (n = 21), cortisol infusion increased maternal, but not fetal, plasma cortisol (P < 0.05). Cortisol infusion also raised maternal insulin, glucose and lactate concentrations, and blood pH, (Formula presented.) and HCO3 concentration. Although total uterine glucose uptake determined by Fick's principle was unaffected, a greater proportion was consumed by the uteroplacental tissues, so net fetal glucose uptake was 29% lower in cortisol-infused than control ewes (P < 0.05). Concomitantly, uteroplacental lactate production was > 2-fold greater in cortisol- than saline-treated ewes (P < 0.05), although uteroplacental O2 consumption was unaffected by maternal treatment. Materno-fetal clearance of non-metabolizable [3H]methyl-d-glucose and placental SLC2A8 (glucose transporter 8) gene expression were also greater with cortisol treatment. Fetal plasma glucose, lactate or α-amino nitrogen concentrations were unaffected by treatment although fetal plasma fructose and hepatic lactate dehydrogenase activity were greater in cortisol- than saline-treated ewes (P < 0.05). Fetal plasma insulin levels and body weight were also unaffected by maternal treatment. During stress, cortisol-dependent regulation of uteroplacental glycolysis may allow increased maternal control over fetal nutrition and metabolism. However, when maternal cortisol concentrations are raised chronically, prolonged elevation of uteroplacental lactate production may compromise fetal wellbeing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6407-6418
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Physiology
Issue number21
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2016
Externally publishedYes

Cite this