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Fetal Adrenal Gland Volume and Cortisol/Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate Ratio in Inflammation-Associated Preterm Birth

Buhimschi, Catalin S. MD1; Turan, Ozhan M. MD2; Funai, Edmund F. MD1; Azpurua, Humberto MD1; Bahtiyar, Mert-Ozan MD1; Turan, Sifa MD2; Zhao, Guomao1; Dulay, Antonette MD1; Bhandari, Vineet MD3; Copel, Joshua A. MD1; Buhimschi, Irina A. MD1

doi: 10.1097/AOG.0b013e3181610294
Original Research

OBJECTIVE: Fetal adaptation to stress is regulated in part by the pituitary-adrenocortical system. The stress hormones dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) and cortisol have opposing effects: cortisol suppresses while DHEAS enhances immune functions. We sought to estimate the impact of intraamniotic inflammation on fetal adrenal gland volume and cortisol-to-dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate ratio (fetal stress ratio) in pregnancies complicated by preterm birth.

METHODS: Fifty-one consecutive singleton fetuses of mothers who had an indicated amniocentesis to rule out infection were analyzed. Intraamniotic inflammation was assessed by proteomic profiling of amniotic fluid for the biomarkers of the Mass Restricted score. The Mass Restricted score ranges from 0 (biomarkers absent) to 4 (all biomarkers present), with Mass Restricted scores of 3 or 4 indicating severe intraamniotic inflammation. Fetal adrenal gland volume was assessed by three-dimensional ultrasonography and corrected for estimated fetal weight. Interleukin-6 (IL-6), cortisol, and DHEAS were measured by immunoassay.

RESULTS: Women with intraamniotic inflammation delivered earlier (27.8±3.4 weeks, n=16, compared with 32.3±3.0 weeks, n=35, P<.001), and their fetuses had higher cord blood IL-6 (P=.011) and higher corrected adrenal gland volumes (P=.027). Cord blood IL-6 levels were in direct relationship with corrected adrenal volume (r=0.372, P=.019), fetal cortisol (r=0.428, P=.010), and DHEAS (r=0.521, P<.001). However, fetuses exposed to intraamniotic inflammation had an overall lower fetal stress ratio (P=.034). These results maintained after adjusting for gestational age, uterine contractions, and steroid exposure.

CONCLUSION: Fetuses exposed to intraamniotic inflammation have higher adrenal gland volumes and lower cortisol-to-DHEAS ratios, suggesting that the fetal adrenocortical axis plays a role in the intrauterine adaptation to inflammation.


Fetuses exposed to intraamniotic inflammation have higher adrenal gland volumes and a lower cortisol-to-dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate ratio (stress ratio), suggesting a role for the fetal adrenocortical axis in the intrauterine adaptation to inflammation.

From the 1Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut; 2Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland; and 3Department of Pediatrics, Division of Neonatology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut.

Supported by the Department of Health and Human Services grant NIH RO1 HD 047321-01 (to I.A.B.).

Corresponding author: Catalin S. Buhimschi, MD, Director of Perinatal Research, Yale University School of Medicine, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences, 333 Cedar Street, LLCI 804, New Haven, CT 06520; e-mail:

Financial Disclosure The authors have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.

The rate of preterm birth has steadily increased over the last two decades, to recently reach a high of 12.7%.1 Several mechanisms have been implicated in triggering preterm birth. Of these, genetic predisposition, excessive stretching, decidual hemorrhage, fetal stress, and inflammation and infection have received increased attention as pathophysiologic pathways, ultimately converging in a cascade of events leading to premature onset of myometrial contractions, rupture of membranes, and cervical ripening.2

In most animal species, the fetal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis plays a central role in the initiation of parturition.3 Still, the threshold and factors responsible for inducing fetal stress in human pregnancy remain elusive. One paradigm proposes that intraamniotic inflammation advances an outpouring of proinflammatory cytokines (interleukins-1, -2, -6, tumor necrosis factor-alpha), which, in turn, stimulate the release of placental corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH).4 It is believed that placental CRH activates the fetal pituitary-adrenocortical axis, which increases production of cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS). In turn, these hormones exert a coordinated upregulation of key enzymes responsible for prostaglandin and estrogen synthesis, leading to activation of myometrial contractility and premature birth.5,6

Findings that link immune and neuroendocrine function may provide an explanation for the importance of the activation of the fetal hypothalamic pituitary adrenal gland axis in the response to inflammation.7 The general view that the reaction of the fetal adrenal gland to inflammation is aimed to avert end-organ damage is supported by evidence that demonstrates that cytokine activation leads to alterations in brain function ranging from behavioral changes to neuronal destruction.8,9 This damage can be prevented through the action of cortisol.7 That adrenal gland hormones have protective roles is also established by the data demonstrating that DHEAS and cortisol have opposing immuno-modulating effects: cortisol suppresses, while DHEAS enhances, the function of the immune system.10,11 Therefore, the ratio of cortisol to DHEAS (stress ratio) would be expected to reflect the ability of the fetus to engage adaptive mechanisms to limit the damaging effects of the inflammatory attack.12,13

Tools for molecular discoveries and fetal surveillance in utero are evolving rapidly to address old challenges and open new opportunities. We have previously shown that proteomic profiling of the amniotic fluid has all the attributes necessary to provide a rapid and accurate diagnosis of intraamniotic inflammation.14,15 We further presented evidence that evaluation of the fetal adrenal gland volume by three-dimensional ultrasonography can identify women at risk for impending preterm birth.16 However, whether the assessment of the fetal adrenal gland volume can provide information with regard to the extent of adrenocortical activation in the context of intraamniotic inflammation remained unexplored. The objective of this study was to estimate the impact of intraamniotic inflammation on fetal adrenal gland volume and fetal stress hormones cortisol and DHEAS in pregnancies complicated by preterm birth.

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We conducted a prospective study in 51 consecutive fetuses of mothers who had a clinically indicated amniocentesis to rule out infection or inflammation. The study period ranged from August 2004 to July 2007. The Yale University Human Investigation Research Board approved the study protocol. We obtained written consent from all the participants before the procedure.

All women presented at Yale New Haven Hospital with advanced cervical dilatation (more than 3 cm), preterm labor, or preterm premature rupture of the membranes (PROM). Eligible women had a singleton fetus at less than 34 weeks of gestation. Exclusion criteria included gestational age greater than 34 weeks, anhydramnios, viral infections (human immunodeficiency virus [HIV], hepatitis), and presence of fetal heart rate abnormalities (fetal bradycardia, recurrent, late, severe, and prolonged variable deceleration) that required immediate delivery.

We documented gestational age based on last menstrual period and early ultrasound evaluations (less than 20 weeks of gestation).17 We defined preterm labor as presence of regular uterine contractions associated with advanced cervical dilatation or effacement at less than 37 weeks of gestation. Rupture of the membranes was confirmed either by pooling on speculum examination, positive nitrazine and fern tests, or by a positive amino-dye test. Clinical chorioamnionitis was diagnosed in the presence of maternal fever (body temperature greater than 37.8ºC [100ºF]), maternal leukocytosis (more than 15,000 cells/mm3), uterine tenderness, foul-smelling amniotic fluid or visualization of pus at the time of the speculum examination, and maternal or fetal tachycardia.18 Women in preterm labor received steroids if they were at less than 34 weeks of gestation. Those with preterm PROM received steroids for enhancement of fetal maturity if at 24 or more weeks but less than 32 weeks of gestation. Antibiotic therapy was recommended as clinically indicated.19 In women with preterm PROM a nonstress test was indicated at least twice daily. A biophysical profile followed in the presence of a nonreassuring fetal heart rate. Induction of labor or a surgical delivery (indicated delivery) was recommended for clinical indications, such as amniotic fluid laboratory results suggestive of intraamniotic infection, nonreassuring fetal heart rate, breech presentation, and in the context of preterm PROM for prolapsed umbilical cord, fetal lung maturity, and/or gestational age of 34 weeks or more.20 The amniocentesis procedure and the decision to deliver the fetus were recommended by the attending physician, independently of our study protocol. We collected data prospectively on whether delivery of the fetus occurred subsequent to spontaneous onset of uterine contractions or secondary to indicated delivery (gestational age more than 34 weeks in the context of preterm PROM, evidence of intraamniotic infection, nonreassuring fetal heart rate). Amniotic fluid was retrieved by ultrasound-guided amniocentesis under sterile conditions. The clinical laboratory tests performed for the purpose of diagnosing inflammation or infection were glucose, lactate dehydrogenase activity, Gram stain, white blood cell count, and microbial cultures for aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, Ureaplasma, and Mycoplasma species. These results were available for clinical management. Remaining amniotic fluid was spun at 3,000g at 4ºC for 20 minutes, aliquoted, and stored at –80ºC for research purposes.

This ultrasonographic technique for measuring the fetal adrenal gland volume has been previously described.16 Briefly, scans were performed with a Voluson 730 or E8 system (Voluson Expert, General Electric Medical Systems, Milwaukee, WI) equipped with a 4–8 MHz three-dimensional probe. We first visualized the fetal abdomen in a cross-sectional way to allow identification of the fetal spine at the 10 or 2 o'clock positions (Fig. 1). Subsequently, we optimized the sector angle and depth of penetration. We set the volume sweep angle between 55º and 80º to allow acquisition of the adrenal volume within one block. At least three volume blocks were obtained for each fetus. Ultrasonographic weight estimations were performed for each fetus at the same time.17 For the purpose of this analysis one examiner who was unaware of clinical presentation or outcome (O.M.T.) verified image quality by multi-planar evaluation (transverse, frontal, and longitudinal) and calculated all fetal adrenal volumes using VOCAL software (Virtual Organ Computer-aided AnaLysis, 4D View; General Electric Medical System). The intraobserver coefficient of variation for calculation of adrenal gland volume was less than 2.5%. As previously described, the adrenal gland volume corrected for estimated fetal weight yields a sonographic variable (corrected adrenal gland volume) that is independent of gestational age.16,17



To confirm or exclude intraamniotic inflammation, we used SELDI-TOF (surface-enhanced laser desorption ionization time of flight) mass spectrometry (PBSIIC, Ciphergen Biosystems, Fremont, CA). The criteria for assessing intraamniotic inflammation were previously reported.14 Briefly, immediately after amniocentesis we searched for the presence of for proteomic biomarkers (peaks corresponding to neutrophil defensin-1, neutrophil defensin-2, calgranulin C, and calgranulin A) making up the Mass Restricted score. A value of 1 is assigned if a particular biomarker peak is present and 0 if absent. The Mass Restricted score ranges thus from 0 to 4, depending upon the absence or presence of each of the four protein biomarkers. A score of 3–4 indicates the presence of “severe” intraamniotic inflammation.14 All SELDI tracings were scored “blindly” by investigators unaware of either clinical presentation or outcome.

At Yale New Haven Hospital, placental pathologic study is a routine part of the evaluation of a pregnancy complicated by preterm labor or preterm PROM. The diagnosis of histologic chorioamnionitis was based on infiltration by the neutrophils of the chorionic plate and amniochorionic membranes. We used well-recognized histologic stages and grading systems to establish the severity of histologic inflammation.21,22 The perinatal pathologist who examined all the placentas was unaware of the results of adrenal measurements, amniotic fluid, and umbilical cord blood analysis.

After amniocentesis, each woman was followed prospectively up to delivery. For research purposes, immediately after delivery, umbilical cord blood specimens were retrieved in a plain tube, spun at 3,000g, 4ºC for 10 minutes., aliquoted, and serum stored at –80ºC.

Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) assays were performed in duplicate according to manufacturers' instructions. Interleukin-6 (IL-6) levels (Pierce-Endogen, Rockford, IL) were measured in both amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood. Levels of cortisol (R&D Systems, Minneapolis, MN) and DHEAS (Alpha Diagnostic, International, San Antonio, TX) were performed only in cord blood. The minimal detectable concentrations for IL-6, cortisol, and DHEAS were 1 pg/mL, 0.071 ng/mL, and 0.005 mcg/mL, respectively, and the inter- and intraassay coefficients of variation were below 10, 7, and 11.5%, respectively. The results of the amniotic fluid analysis, adrenal gland volume, and histologic analysis of the placenta for several of these women and their neonates were previously used in studies aimed to identify presence in the amniotic fluid of biomarkers characteristic of intraamniotic inflammation or evaluate the role of fetal adrenal gland volume in identifying women at risk for preterm birth.14,16

The Kolmogorov-Smirnov method was used for data normality testing. Data are presented as average and standard deviation if normally distributed or, otherwise, as median and range. Statistical analyses were performed with Sigma Stat 2.03 (SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL), MedCalc (MedCalc Software, Broekstraat, Belgium), and StatsDirect (Stats Direct Ltd., Cheshire, UK) statistical software programs. Comparisons between the groups were performed using Student t tests or Mann-Whitney rank sum tests, as appropriate. Proportions were compared with Fisher exact or χ2 tests. Statistical analysis was completed after logarithmic transformation of the cytokine levels before correlation analyses using Pearson product moment correlation coefficient. Multiple stepwise linear or logistic regression analyses were used to adjust P values for potential influences of gestational age or other parameters. In our previous study, we found that the corrected fetal adrenal gland volume was inversely correlated with duration from scan to delivery (r=–0.445, P<.001), a biologically significant outcome.16 Therefore, in a two-sided sample size calculation, we estimated that a minimum of 39 cases are required to detect a similar level of correlation, using 80% power and an alpha of 5%. A sample size of 51 total cases would allow statistical significance in Pearson correlation analysis for an r=0.386. Throughout the study we judged P<.05 as indicating statistical significance.

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In Table 1 we present the demographic, clinical, and outcome characteristics of our study population. Women with intraamniotic inflammation were of lower gestational age at both amniocentesis and delivery. The prevalence of a spontaneous delivery was 65% (33 of 51). Indicated preterm delivery was more frequently used in women with intraamniotic inflammation, and therefore, this group had a shorter amniocentesis-to-delivery interval. Neonates delivered by women with intraamniotic inflammation were of lower birth weight and had lower 1-minute Apgar scores. However, these differences were rendered nonsignificant when correcting for gestational age at delivery in multivariable regression analysis. Placental pathology of cases with intraamniotic inflammation more frequently confirmed presence of histologic chorioamnionitis (P<.001), independently of gestational age at birth.

Table 1

Table 1

We present the results of the amniotic fluid analysis in Table 2. Intraamniotic inflammation was characterized by a lower glucose concentration, higher lactate dehydrogenase activity, and higher white blood cell count. The overall prevalence of a positive microbial culture result in our study population was 38% (13 of 51), with a higher incidence in women with intraamniotic inflammation. The amniotic fluid IL-6 levels in this group were significantly higher compared with the noninflammation group.

Table 2

Table 2

We observed that the cord serum concentrations of IL-6 were significantly higher in fetuses delivered by women with intraamniotic inflammation (Table 2), confirming the higher inflammatory state of fetuses in this group. In contrast, the median concentrations of cortisol and DHEAS were not significantly different in fetuses delivered by women with and without intraamniotic inflammation. However, fetuses delivered in the context of intraamniotic inflammation had a significantly lower stress ratio (P=.034) (Table 2 and Fig. 2A). These results were maintained after adjusting for gestational age, presence of uterine contractions, indicated delivery, amniocentesis-to-delivery interval, race, and steroid exposure in multivariable regression analysis.



We found that fetuses of women with intraamniotic inflammation had lower estimated fetal weights but higher corrected adrenal gland volumes compared with those of women without inflammation (Table 3 and Fig. 2B). Fetuses with corrected adrenal volumes greater than 422 mm3/kg×103 had higher median cord blood IL-6 levels (P=.034).

Table 3

Table 3

There was a direct relationship between cord blood IL-6 and corrected fetal adrenal gland volume (r=0.372, P=.019), cord blood cortisol (r=0.428, P=.010), and DHEAS (r=0.521, P<.001). We previously demonstrated by receiver operating characteristic analysis that a corrected adrenal gland volume greater than 422 mm3/kg×103 predicts delivery within 5 days from the time of sonographic asessment.16 However, there was no correlation of the corrected adrenal gland volume and either cortisol (r=–0.117, P=.495), DHEAS (r=0.218, P=.218), or the fetal stress ratio (r=–0.200; P=.240). These results were maintained after correcting for the mode of delivery (spontaneous onset of labor or indicated preterm delivery) in stepwise multivariable analysis.

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The present study was enabled by our previous findings suggesting that measurement of fetal adrenal gland volume by three-dimensional ultrasonography may be a useful clinical marker for impending preterm birth.16 The long-held view of a complex cross-talk between the innate immune and endocrine systems led us to hypothesize that fetal inflammation is accompanied by alterations in the molar ratio of cortisol/DHEAS (fetal stress ratio). If true, we projected that the level of fetal adrenocortical activation can be recognized noninvasively in utero through an increased corrected adrenal gland volume. Here again, we provided evidence for involvement of cytokines and stress hormones in the fetal adaptive response to inflammation but with particular nuances. Our results indicate that intraamniotic inflammation is associated with increased circulating levels of fetal IL-6, which, in turn, correlated with the fetal adrenal gland volume. We further found that, although the absolute serum levels of cortisol and DHEAS were not significantly different, fetuses exposed to inflammation had lower ratios of these stress hormones. Interestingly, we determined that the corrected fetal adrenal gland volume neither reflects the fetal circulating levels of cortisol, DHEAS, nor the fetal stress ratio, suggesting that these variables are not necessarily interdependent.

The roles of fetal cortisol and DHEAS in the onset of human parturition are less understood than in other animal species.3 Several studies reported increased cortisol levels,23,24 whereas others found no change in relationship to onset of term labor in women.25,26 Controversy also exists related to preterm labor or intrauterine infection.27,28 Our findings are concurrent with the prior observations of Yoon et al27 that fetuses delivered by women with intraamniotic infection do not have higher fetal plasma cortisol or DHEAS concentrations. However, their reported differences in fetal adrenal response based on spontaneous onset of labor and time interval to delivery27 were not confirmed by either our or others' data.28 Possible explanations may be related to differences in study populations or to our focus on intraamniotic inflammation rather than to a positive amniotic fluid culture result as evidence of infection.

Inflammation represents a highly orchestrated process designed to prevent tissue injury.29 In pregnancy, inappropriate control and unsuccessful resolution of an inflammatory process shifts its role from protective to damaging, with grave consequences for the fetus.30 The inflammatory cytokine IL-6 has emerged as an important regulator of this immunological switch through differential control of neutrophil recruitment, activation, and apoptosis.31 Although previous research has demonstrated increased fetal circulating levels of IL-6 in pregnancies complicated by intraamniotic infection,32 to our knowledge the relationship between the intensity of the fetal inflammatory response and adrenal gland volume has not been examined before this study.

Activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis represents one of several important responses to critical illnesses. Stress in adults is associated with increased production of adrenal cortisol and DHEAS, which have opposing immunoregulatory effects.33 In vitro, cortisol significantly decreases neutrophil superoxide generation, an effect prevented by co-incubation with DHEAS.12 Healthy young adults respond to stress with a lower cortisol-to-DHEAS ratio, which is a feature of favorable prognosis. In contrast, a high stress ratio is considered a marker of increased mortality in both septic and posttraumatic shock12,13 Although our observation of an increased fetal adrenal gland volume intuitively suggests that activation of the pituitary hypothalamic axis in response to inflammatory stimuli also occurs in the fetus, this concept is not supported by our cortisol or DHEAS data, which did not differ in absolute levels with the presence or extent of inflammation. Several explanations may be pertinent to these apparently contradictory observations. For example, it is possible that the fetal adrenal gland at the time of inflammatory aggression is still functionally immature and, thus, unable to provide the robust endocrinological response seen in adults. This concept is supported by prior studies showing that, despite severe illness, very preterm neonates have relatively low basal cortisol and DHEAS concentrations.34 Therefore, our finding that intraamniotic inflammation is associated with a lower stress ratio suggests that even the premature fetus is able to initiate a stress response aimed at buffering the negative effects of inflammation, albeit at a more subtle level. We propose that the enlarged adrenal glands in the context of a lower stress ratio are features of a complex adaptive stress response mounted in anticipation of birth by premature fetuses that have an overall reduced ability to respond to inflammation.

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