Previous work has established a number of sex-related deficits in immune function, behavior, and endocrine responses to stress in the offspring of darns exposed to ethanol. To examine the potential role of maternal glucocorticoids as a mediator of these sexually dimorphic effects in the fetus, we examined the influence of prenatal alcohol exposure in the presence or absence of maternal glucocorticoids on fetal plasma corticosterone (CORT) production. An additional question to be addressed by these studies was whether maternal adrenalectomy could eliminate the known inhibition by ethanol of the prenatal surge of plasma testosterone in male fetuses. Pregnant dams were adrenalectomized (ADX) or sham-adrenalectomized on gestational day (G) 7 and placed on a liquid diet containing 35% ethanol- derived calories or pair-fed an isocaloric control diet throughout the experiment. On G18, G19, and G21, plasma levels of CORT, testosterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) were measured in male and female fetuses and their mothers. Ethanol administration consistently increased maternal plasma CORT levels but did not significantly alter CORT levels in the fetus. Maternal ADX resulted in compensatory increases in fetal CORT levels that were lower in fetuses of ADX dams on alcohol, suggesting a direct effect of ethanol on fetal pituitary-adrenal activity. There were no significant sex differences in fetal plasma CORT levels in response to any of these manipulations. A novel surge of maternal plasma DHEA was found on G19 that was absent in plasma from ADX dams. In spite of the absence of a surge on G19, plasma DHEA levels of ADX dams rose from very low levels at G18 to levels on G21 that were significantly higher than in Sham dams. A normal testosterone surge was observed in male fetuses on G18 and G19 from sham- adrenalectomized dams administered the pair-fed diet. However, this surge was greatly attenuated in males administered ethanol and also in male fetuses from ADX dams. These results reveal a direct inhibitory influence of ethanol on fetal CORT secretion as well as on the prenatal testosterone surge in males. Furthermore, these studies demonstrate the presence of a surge of DHEA in the pregnant rat. Overall, these data suggest that there is a critical adrenal factor in the rat that regulates the maternal surge of DHEA on G19 and the prenatal testosterone surge of male fetuses on G18-19.
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