The feto-placental unit, and potential roles of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in prenatal and postnatal brain development: A re-examination using the spiny mouse

Tracey A. Quinn, Udani Ratnayake, Hayley Dickinson, Margie Castillo-Melendez, David W. Walker

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleOtherpeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Synthesis of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) by the fetal adrenal gland is important for placental oestrogen production, and may also be important for modulating the effects of glucocorticoids on the developing brain. We have preciously shown that the enzymes and accessory proteins needed for DHEA synthesis - cytochrome P450 enzyme 17α-hydroxylase/17,20 lyase (P450c17), cytochrome-b5 (Cytb5), 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (3βHSD) - are expressed in the adrenal gland from 30 days gestation, and DHEA, cortisol and aldosterone are present in fetal plasma from this time. Explant culture of fetal adrenal tissue showed that the spiny mouse adrenal gland, can synthesize and secrete DHEA from at least 0.75 of gestation, and suggest that DHEA may have an important role(s) in placental biosynthesis of oestrogens and in modulating the actions of glucocorticoids in the developing brain in this species. Post-natally, increased immuno-expression of P450c17 and Cytb5 expression in the zona reticularis of the adrenal gland and a significant increase in the synthesis and secretion of DHEA in plasma from 8 to 20 days of age in the spiny mouse, are representative of a period of high adrenal androgen production consistent with the human phenomenon of adrenarche. The studies summarised in this review also show that DHEA is produced de novo in the developing brain of the spiny mouse. These results showed that the spiny mouse brain can indeed produce DHEA from pregnenolone in a time-dependant manner, and coupled with the identification of P450c17 and Cytb5 protein in several regions of the brain, support the idea that DHEA is an endogenous neuro-active steroid in this species. Together, the studies outlined in this review indicate that the androgen DHEA is an important hormone of adrenal and Central Nervous System (CNS) origin in the fetal and postnatal spiny mouse. Disturbance of the development of these fetal tissues, and/or of the relationship between the fetal adrenal gland and placenta during pregnancy, may have significant consequences for fetal development, placental function, and maturation of the brain. It is proposed that such disturbances of normal adrenal function could account for some of the neuropathologies that arise in juvenile and adult offspring following illness and stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)204-213
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016


  • Adrenal gland
  • Brain
  • Cytochrome b5
  • DHEA
  • Estrogen
  • Feto-placental unit
  • Fetus
  • Glucocorticoid receptor
  • Glucocorticoids
  • P450c17
  • Primates
  • Spiny mouse

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