Objective: Intrauterine exposures such as maternal psychopathology and stress are known to influence the physical and mental health of the offspring. One of the proposed pathways underlying these associations is dysregulated hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity in the offspring. This study examined the relation of perinatal maternal symptoms of psychopathology and stress with offspring HPA axis activity at 6 years as measured by hair cortisol and cortisone concentrations.
Methods: The study was part of the population-based Generation R Study, a prospective population-based cohort from fetal life onwards. 2546 children and their mothers formed the study population. Perinatal maternal psychopathology and stress were assessed by questionnaires in the second and third trimester. Principal components for both psychopathology and stress were created to reduce the number of explanatory variables. Child hair samples for cortisol and cortisone measurements were collected at the age of 6. Linear regression analysis, adjusted for covariates, was used to examine associations between maternal psychopathology and stress and child hair cortisol and cortisone levels.
Results: The maternal psychopathology principal component was associated with higher child hair cortisone (adjusted B = 0.24, 95%CI 0.08;0.40, p-value < 0.01). Effect estimates of the individual dimensions ranged from 0.97 (95%CI 0.21;1.73, p-value = 0.01) for interpersonal sensitivity to 1.67 (95%CI 0.86;2.47, p-value < 0.01) for paranoid ideation. In addition, children exposed to intrauterine stress, as measured by the principal component, had higher hair cortisone levels (adjusted B = 0.54, 95%CI 0.21;0.88, p-value < 0.01). Exposure to maternal psychopathology and stress was not associated with offspring hair cortisol. Stratification by child sex resulted in associations between maternal symptoms of psychopathology during pregnancy and child hair cortisone levels in boys and associations between maternal symptoms of stress during pregnancy and child hair cortisone levels in girls.
Conclusion: Our results suggest that maternal psychopathology and stress during pregnancy are associated with long-term HPA axis activity of the offspring. The association of maternal psychopathology and stress during pregnancy with offspring hair cortisone levels is a novel finding. Future studies should examine whether these psychophysiological differences between exposed and non-exposed children underlie offspring morbidity associated with maternal psychopathology and stress during pregnancy.

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doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.09.003, hdl.handle.net/1765/110381
Department of Psychiatry

Molenaar, N., Tiemeier, H., van Rossum, L., Hillegers, M., Bockting, C., Hoogendijk, W., … El Marroun, H. (2018). Prenatal maternal psychopathology and stress and offspring HPA axis function at 6 years. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 99, 120–127. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.09.003