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Chernobyl exposure as stressor during pregnancy and hormone levels in adolescent offspring


Background: Animal research suggests a programming effect of prenatal stress in the fetal period, resulting in disruptions in behavioural and neuromotor development. Physiological changes that mediate these effects include alterations in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and in testosterone levels. This human study focuses on changes related to these physiological systems after prenatal stress exposure.

Methods: We examined the potential effect of prenatal stress associated with the Chernobyl disaster in an ongoing genetic epidemiological study in Finland. One birth cohort of twins (n = 121 twin pairs) was exposed in utero to maternal stress, and their saliva cortisol and testosterone levels at age 14 were compared with twins (n = 157 twin pairs) born one year later.

Results: Cortisol levels in both sexes and testosterone levels among females were significantly elevated after prenatal exposure to maternal stress from the second trimester onwards, compared to reference groups of non-exposed adolescents. Exposure explains 3% of variance (p<0.05) in cortisol levels and 18% of variance in testosterone levels (p<0.001). No significant differences were found for exposure from either first or third trimester onwards.

Conclusion: Our results suggest that prenatal exposure to maternal stress in the second trimester of pregnancy may have resulted in prenatal programming of physiological systems relating to cortisol and testosterone levels.

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