Adrenocortical responsiveness is blunted in twin relative to singleton ovine fetuses

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Abstract

Twin fetuses experience much higher rates of perinatal mortality/morbidity than age- and weight-matched singletons. Across species, the prepartum increase in fetal plasma cortisol is responsible for maturing a number of systems in preparation for birth and the immediate postnatal period. In sheep, it is known that basal adrenocortical function is delayed in twins relative to singletons. Thus, it could be argued that relative immaturity in twins may explain their increased susceptibility to stress in the perinatal period and their relatively poor perinatal outcome. However, whether adrenocortical responsiveness to stress is also diminished in the twin fetus and whether the fetal cardiovascular, metabolic and endocrine defences to acute stress are comparatively weak in the twin fetus is unknown. This study investigated the effect of twinning on adrenocortical responsiveness to either the physiological stress of acute hypoxaemia or to an exogenous ACTH test, and on the fetal cardiovascular, metabolic and endocrine responses to acute hypoxaemic stress. Twenty Welsh Mountain sheep fetuses were chronically instrumented (1–2% halothane) at 121 ± 3 days of gestation (term is ca 145 days) with amniotic and vascular catheters and with a transit-time flow probe around a femoral artery. The animals were divided into two groups based upon fetal number (singletons, n= 10; twins, n= 10), as determined at surgery. At 130 ± 2 days, a 1 h episode of acute, isocapnic hypoxaemia (to reduce carotid PO2 to 12 ± 1 mmHg) was induced in all fetuses by reducing the maternal inspired O2 fraction (FIO2; 9% O2 in N2). Fetal cardiovascular variables were recorded at 1 s intervals throughout the experimental protocol and arterial blood samples taken at appropriate intervals for biophysical (blood gases, glucose, lactate) and endocrine (catecholamines, vasopressin, cortisol, ACTH) measures. At 133 ± 2 days a 2.5 μg bolus dose of synthetic ACTH (Synacthen; Ciba Pharmaceuticals, UK) was injected I.V. into eight of the singleton and six of the twin fetuses to determine adrenocortical steroidogenic sensitivity to exogenous ACTH. Under basal conditions, twins had lower plasma cortisol concentration, arterial blood pressure and femoral blood flow relative to singleton fetuses. Twins responded to acute hypoxaemia with similar pressor and vasopressor responses compared to singleton fetuses. However, the rate pressure product, an index of myocardial work, tended to decrease during hypoxaemia in twins, in contrast to the increase observed in singletons. Similar increases in the fetal plasma concentrations of ACTH, AVP, noradrenaline and adrenaline were observed during hypoxaemia in both groups; however, both the increments in fetal plasma concentration of cortisol in response to acute hypoxaemia and to exogenous ACTH were blunted in twins relative to singletons. This study shows that basal adrenocortical function as well as adrenocortical responsiveness is blunted in the twin relative to the singleton fetus. Further, the mechanism for adrenocortical blunting resides at the level of the adrenal cortex rather than higher up the axis. Relative adrenocortical immaturity in the twin fetus may reflect a specific endocrine adaptation to prolong gestation in multiple ovine pregnancies; however, such an adaptation does not affect the cardiovascular, metabolic or endocrine defence responses to acute hypoxaemia in the twin fetus.

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