24 January 2002
We investigated the effects of perinatal maternal malnutrition on the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity in both basal and stressful conditions in newborn rats at weaning. Mothers from the control group were fed ad libitum. Mothers exposed to food restriction received 50% (FR50) of the daily intake of pregnant dams during the last week of gestation (Pre group), lactation (Post group) or both periods (PP group) in order to compare the long-term effects of gestational and/or lactational restriction. FR50 reduced the body growth of pups from the Post and PP groups as soon as day 11 until day 21 after birth. At weaning, pups of the Post and PP groups showed reduced adrenal, thymus and liver weights. Although the plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) level was reduced in pups, FR50 affected neither corticotropin-releasing hormone expression and peptide synthesis in the hypothalamus nor proopiomelanocortin expression in the adenohypophysis. Basal circulating levels of corticosterone were not markedly affected by FR50, but free corticosterone concentration was increased in the PP group. Plasma corticosterone-binding globulin (CBG) was decreased in newborns from both the Post and PP groups. Mineralocorticoid receptor gene expression was significantly increased in both CA1 and CA3 hippocampal areas in the PP group. Glucocorticoid receptor gene expression was increased in CA1, CA2 and dentate gyrus hippocampal areas in the Pre group, as well as in CA1, CA3 and DG areas in the Post group. The ether inhalation-induced plasma ACTH increase was weaker in pups from the Post and PP groups. Similarly, the ether inhalation-induced plasma corticosterone increase returned to basal levels in the Post group, or to weaker values than baseline in the PP group 90 min after this stressful procedure. The present work suggests that maternal food restriction during the perinatal period (gestation and lactation) or during lactation only reduces the postnatal somatic growth of pups and disturbs the activity of the HPA axis at weaning under both resting and stress conditions. A reduction in the plasma CBG-binding capacity, associated with a probable increase in hippocampal corticosteroid receptors, could reinforce glucocorticoid-mediated negative feedback and shorten stress-induced activation of the HPA axis in pups at weaning.