Prenatal Stress, Prematurity, and Asthma

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Abstract

Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood, affecting millions of children in the United States and worldwide. Prematurity is a risk factor for asthma, and certain ethnic or racial minorities such as Puerto Ricans and non-Hispanic blacks are disproportionately affected by both prematurity and asthma. In this review, we examine current evidence to support maternal psychosocial stress as a putative link between prematurity and asthma, while also focusing on disruption of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and immune responses as potential underlying mechanisms for stress-induced “premature asthma.” Prenatal stress may cause not only abnormalities in the HPA axis but also epigenetic changes in the fetal glucocorticoid receptor gene (NR3C1), leading to impaired glucocorticoid metabolism. Moreover, maternal stress can alter fetal cytokine balance, favoring TH2 (allergic) immune responses characteristic of atopic asthma: interleukin 6 (IL-6), which has been associated with premature labor, can promote TH2 responses by stimulating production of IL-4 and IL-13. Given a link among stress, prematurity, and asthma, future research should include birth cohorts aimed at confirming and better characterizing “premature asthma.” If confirmed, clinical trials of prenatal maternal stress reduction would be warranted to reduce the burden of these common comorbidities. While awaiting the results of such studies, sound policies to prevent domestic and community violence (eg, from firearms) are justified, not only by public safety but also by growing evidence of detrimental effects of violence-induced stress on psychiatric and somatic health.

Target Audience

Obstetricians and gynecologists, family physicians.

Learning Objectives

After completing this activity, the learner will be better able to understand the quality and limitation of the current evidence for a link between prenatal stress and prematurity or asthma, compare and contrast the feedback mechanisms for cortisol regulation at the brain and placenta in response to stress, demonstrate an understanding of racial differences in hormonal and cytokine response and how this may apply to increased risk of preterm birth among certain groups, and examine potential mechanisms by which alterations in the HPA axis and immune responses can contribute to preterm birth and asthma.

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