Sex-dependent programming effects of prenatal glucocorticoid treatment on the developing serotonin system and stress-related behaviors in adulthood

R. Hiroi, D. L. Carbone, D. G. Zuloaga, H. A. Bimonte-Nelson, Robert J Handa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

28 Scopus citations


Prenatal stress and overexposure to glucocorticoids (GC) during development may be associated with an increased susceptibility to a number of diseases in adulthood including neuropsychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety. In animal models, prenatal overexposure to GC results in hyper-responsiveness to stress in adulthood, and females appear to be more susceptible than males. Here, we tested the hypothesis that overexposure to GC during fetal development has sex-specific programming effects on the brain, resulting in altered behaviors in adulthood. We examined the effects of dexamethasone (DEX; a synthetic GC) during prenatal life on stress-related behaviors in adulthood and on the tryptophan hydroxylase-(TpH2) gene expression in the adult dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). TpH2 is the rate-limiting enzyme for serotonin (5-HT) synthesis and has been implicated in the etiology of human affective disorders. Timed-pregnant rats were treated with DEX from gestational days 18-22. Male and female offspring were sacrificed on the day of birth (postnatal day 0; P0), P7, and in adulthood (P80-84) and brains were examined for changes in TpH2 mRNA expression. Adult animals were also tested for anxiety- and depressive- like behaviors. In adulthood, prenatal DEX increased anxiety- and depressive- like behaviors selectively in females, as measured by decreased time spent in the center of the open field and increased time spent immobile in the forced swim test, respectively. Prenatal DEX increased TpH2 mRNA selectively in the female caudal DRN at P7, whereas it decreased TpH2 mRNA selectively in the female caudal DRN in adulthood. In animals challenged with restraint stress in adulthood, TpH2 mRNA was significantly lower in rostral DRN of prenatal DEX-treated females compared to vehicle-treated females. These data demonstrated that prenatal overexposure to GC alters the development of TpH2 gene expression and these alterations correlated with lasting behavioral changes found in adult female offspring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)43-56
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - Apr 21 2016



  • anxiety depression
  • Dexamethasone
  • dorsal raphe nucleus
  • Rat
  • tryptophan hydroxylase-2

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

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