Sir Graham Collingwood Liggins devoted much of his professional life to obstetric research. Liggins demonstrated that hormones created by the fetus helped initiate labor, rather than hormones originating solely from the mother. Liggins also discovered that cortisol given to pregnant mothers helped delay premature labor, and that it increased the likelihood that premature infants would breathe normally after birth. Prior to cortisol treatment, premature infants often died of respiratory distress syndrome characterized by the inability to inflate immature lungs. Before the clinical application of Liggins' discoveries in the 1980s, premature infants born before 32 weeks of gestation generally died because of respiratory distress.

In 2001, researchers Leonie Welberg and Jonathan Seckl published the literature review “Prenatal Stress, Glucocorticoids, and the Programming of the Brain,” in which they report on the effects of prenatal stress on the development of the fetal brain. The fetus experiences prenatal stress while in the womb, or in utero. In discussing the effects of prenatal stress, the authors describe prenatal programming, which is when early environmental experiences permanently alter biological structure and function throughout life. Throughout “Prenatal Stress, Glucocorticoids and the Programming of the Brain,” Welberg and Seckl provide a number of potential biological explanations, derived from both animal and human studies, to explain the underlying mechanisms involved in programming, which helped establish how in utero stress can affect fetal brain development.

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