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A study was made of the effects of prenatal stress on the reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary
adrenal (HPA) axis in male and female offspring. Rat dams were subjected to noise
and light stress on an unpredictable basis throughout pregnancy. At 28 days of age
mRNA for POMC, proenkephalin and prodynorphin were measured in the hypothalamus of
the offspring. A marked reduction was found in POMC mRNA in PS females (PSF) but not
in males (PSM), but the other mRNA's did not differ from controls (C). At 60 days
of age, PSF has 3 times higher resting levels of serum corticosterone (COR) and significantly
lower dexamethasone (DEX)3H hippocampal binding sites than CF. Overnight adrenalectomy
abolished the difference in DEX binding. After 10 min exposure to open field PS males
and females voided more fecal pellets and made fewer center entries than C offspring,
testifying to increased emotionality. Open field stress caused a 3-5-fold rise in
circulating COR in all groups within 15 min, which returned to baseline by 90 min
in all rats except PSF. These data show that prenatal stress can cause permanent alterations
in the behavior of both sexes in stressful situations but appears to cause a selective
effect on the HPA axis in the female rat.