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Review ARTICLE

Front. Endocrinol., 13 May 2014 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2014.00073

Early-life stress, HPA axis adaptation, and mechanisms contributing to later health outcomes

  • Department of Pharmacology, School of Medical Sciences, UNSW Australia, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Stress activates the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, which then modulates the degree of adaptation and response to a later stressor. It is known that early-life stress can impact on later health but less is known about how early-life stress impairs HPA axis activity, contributing to maladaptation of the stress–response system. Early-life stress exposure (either prenatally or in the early postnatal period) can impact developmental pathways resulting in lasting structural and regulatory changes that predispose to adulthood disease. Epidemiological, clinical, and experimental studies have demonstrated that early-life stress produces long term hyper-responsiveness to stress with exaggerated circulating glucocorticoids, and enhanced anxiety and depression-like behaviors. Recently, evidence has emerged on early-life stress-induced metabolic derangements, for example hyperinsulinemia and altered insulin sensitivity on exposure to a high energy diet later in life. This draws our attention to the contribution of later environment to disease vulnerability. Early-life stress can alter the expression of genes in peripheral tissues, such as the glucocorticoid receptor and 11-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11β-HSD1). We propose that interactions between altered HPA axis activity and liver 11β-HSD1 modulates both tissue and circulating glucocorticoid availability, with adverse metabolic consequences. This review discusses the potential mechanisms underlying early-life stress-induced maladaptation of the HPA axis, and its subsequent effects on energy utilization and expenditure. The effects of positive later environments as a means of ameliorating early-life stress-induced health deficits, and proposed mechanisms underpinning the interaction between early-life stress and subsequent detrimental environmental exposures on metabolic risk will be outlined. Limitations in current methodology linking early-life stress and later health outcomes will also be addressed.

Introduction

Stress can be defined as any condition including an adverse environment, experience, or perceived threat to alter an organism’s homeostasis, which elicits a physiological response involving both peripheral and central systems via the release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex through activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis (1). Glucocorticoids serve as the critical end product of the HPA axis and negative feedback through glucocorticoid–glucocorticoid receptor binding in the hippocampus promotes adaptation and recovery from stress (2). Activity of the HPA axis plays a critical role in restoring homeostasis following imminent or acute stressor exposure (1). In contrast, recurrent or persistent activation of the HPA axis and the autonomic nervous system are associated with adverse health outcomes (3). Individuals respond differently to stressors, which can reflect a wide range of adversities in life from major events to daily conflicts and pressures. Increased levels of glucocorticoids interfere with energy utilization and modify metabolic hormones such as insulin and glucose, which are key regulators of energy metabolism (46). The elicited response affects multiple physiological systems including neuroendocrine, autonomic, and the immune system and is an established risk factor for the development of disease (710).

There is longstanding recognition of the impact of stress during critical early developmental periods such as childhood and the consequential association with adverse mental health outcomes and changes in brain development (1113), however, less is known regarding how this dysfunction may confer increased metabolic disease risk. Emerging epidemiological evidence demonstrates that adverse early-life stress-induced dysregulation of the HPA axis and increases vulnerability for metabolic disorders. In particular, exposure to an adverse environment during prenatal and postnatal periods, such as lack of nutrition or starvation during war, traumatic experiences including childhood physical or sexual abuse, neglect, adverse parenting or medical trauma has been demonstrated to be one of the major risk factors contributing to the development metabolic disorders including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM), and hyperlipidemia (1416).

While studies aimed at exploring underlying mechanisms are difficult to achieve in humans, animal studies have shed some light into the effects of early-life stress induced during the prenatal and postnatal periods on metabolic hormones and on peripheral tissues involved in glucose/insulin and lipid metabolism (1724). In addition, the morphology of the pancreas is also affected by prenatal stress, with reduced beta-cell numbers (25). Thus, stress during early development may incur permanent alterations in morphology and function of key peripheral organs involved in metabolism of insulin, glucose and lipids, and these changes suggest programing effects of early-life stress (26).

This review will unravel how early-life stress induces metabolic derangements; an area that is less well explored. Despite the emergence of human data in the field, mechanisms elucidating the association between stress and adverse metabolic outcomes are lacking. Animal studies permit closer investigation of the stress system and through various manipulations, allow the mechanisms underlying effects of stress on metabolism to be explored. Of particular focus is exploring outcomes of stress during the perinatal and early-life period for later life metabolic outcomes.

Does Early-Life Stress Affect Risk for Later Life Metabolic Deficit?

Modeling Early-Life Stress in Animals

As direct examination of the prospective effects of early-life stress is not feasible in humans this had led to the development of numerous animal models to explore the question of whether early-life stress can affect risk for later life metabolic deficit. Animal models of early-life stress allow for controlled environmental manipulation throughout developmental periods and later life. With necessary caution these models can assist our understanding of the link between developmental and environment experiences and the conferred later life metabolic disease vulnerabilities. Inherent differences in human and rodent biological maturation and neuroendocrine development must be considered in study design and translation to human health. Humans give birth to mature young; with the final trimester of pregnancy being a period of rapid brain development (27, 28). Rodent offspring are born relatively immature with maximal growth phase initiated early in the postnatal period. Despite greater maturity of human offspring at the time of birth, development is far from complete with changes in neurological processes, synaptogenesis, synaptic pruning, and plastic changes in key functional areas including the hippocampus occurring until late adolescence (29, 30). The environment has been shown to impact this ongoing development beyond gestation. Children physically healthy at the time of birth who were abused in early life were shown to have reduced brain volume, correlated to age of abuse onset, and duration of the stress (31). Imposed stressors during rodent gestational or early postnatal life are suggested to model the period of gestation, early postnatal, or infancy in humans.

Humans and rodents have a vital dependence on adequate nourishment and care to ensure normal development. This altricial nature and vulnerable perinatal period across both species means that models of maternal care can provide insight into how early support and sensitivity to offspring needs can impact development. Changes in maternal care have been shown to impact rodent development with mother–offspring interactions such as licking and feeding providing critical input for normal neurobiological development and HPA axis function (32, 33). Adequate maternal contact during this period assists in maintaining rodents in their early-life hypo-responsive stress state and adverse experience through physical or psychological means or synthetic glucocorticoid administration can permanently alter HPA axis function (34, 35).

Three popular paradigms of postnatal early-life stress are maternal separation for varied periods of time from 15 min to 8 h, maternal deprivation (absence of the dam for a more extended period) and provision of only limiting nesting material. The maternal separation model has been studied for more than five decades, and is demonstrated in both mice and rats to affect the HPA axis, and behavioral responses in mothers and offspring in a sex dependant manner (3639). Maternal deprivation is another common form of early-life stress which has been studied over decades (4044). Twenty-four hours of maternal deprivation in neonatal rodents induced marked elevations in plasma corticosterone and decreases in plasma glucose and leptin, amongst other hormonal and neurotrophic factor changes (40, 43). This model, however appears to reflect a severe nutritional insult rather than psychological disturbances. Therefore, whether maternal deprivation represents adverse early experience in the human context is debatable. The limiting nesting paradigm, a more recently developed model of early-life stress, has been described elsewhere (35) but, briefly, involves limiting the dam’s available material for nest building, resulting in rudimentary and inadequate housing for offspring, a chronic stressor for the dam and pups. Limited nesting (LN) material, attempts to enhance commonalities to the human condition of childhood neglect and maternal stress in which the mother is present, yet care is abnormal and fragmented. Notably, the LN model has been demonstrated to impair HPA axis activity and induce behavioral deficits both in the dam and pups (35, 45, 46).

Recently, early-life stress models in non-human primates have demonstrated a lasting health impact following adverse early experiences. Altering secure attachment relationships during early life in Rhesus macaques significantly elevated prevalence and frequency of illness and increased bodyweight trajectory (47). Stress induced via variable foraging demand in bonnet macaques during lactation affected the metabolic profile of their offspring; a decreased glucose disposal rate was observed during hyperinsulinemic-euglycemic clamps in those exposed to early-life stress (48).

Observations in Human Studies

Retrospective and observational studies in humans demonstrate that early-life experiences can influence later life metabolic outcome. Environmental changes during gestation and the early postnatal period may impact development and predict metabolic health outcomes. Manipulations of the early environment can affect the developing nervous system, shaping individual differences in physiological and behavioral responses to environmental insults. For example, disruption of the mother–infant relationship during early life contributes to neuroendocrine, neurochemical, and behavioral changes in the adult organism (49). Experience of adversity during early life and adolescence in the form of parental conflict or parental separation increased the risk of later life obesity (50). Similarly, experience of a range of early-life stressors was positively correlated with increased adult BMI in men, independently of mental health condition (51). These adverse early-life experiences are associated with persisting changes in HPA axis function in adult life with changes in the normal dynamics of the stress system and its end-point hormone cortisol (52). Commonly, a flattened cortisol circadian rhythm and hypo- or hyper-responsiveness to future novel stressors is observed (53, 54).

Barker’s theory postulates that low birth weight predicts increased disease risk later in life, including metabolic vulnerability (55). Given this association, identifying factors that influence gestational growth, and ultimately determine birth weight is important. Reduced birth weight and preterm birth have both been associated with psychosocial stress exposure during pregnancy (5658). Having a low birth weight baby (<2500 g) was associated with stress-related psychiatric illness in pregnant mothers, such as melancholic depression (59). Prenatal psychological stress such as experiencing bereavement during pregnancy led to an increased risk of developing T2DM in their children during adulthood (60). Degree of social support during pregnancy has also been associated with birth weight (61). Other psychological stressors such as financial, relationship problems, and illness during pregnancy led to elevated glucose, insulin, and C-peptide levels during glucose tolerance test in their children aged 25 (62). Nutritional stress during the neonatal period has also been shown to adversely impact offspring health outcome, as explored below.

Famine exposure during pregnancy is a chronic early-life stress that is also known to affect birth weight and increase risk for metabolic disorders later in life. A well-documented period providing epidemiological evidence linking early-life adversity and health outcomes is the 1944–1945 Dutch Famine (see Table 1). A cohort of 741 subjects exposed to the Dutch Famine prenatally had a reduced birth weight, yet at adulthood these subjects had increased body weight, BMI, fasting proinsulin levels, and glucose intolerance (63). A report of 7557 women exposed to the Dutch famine showed increased risk for T2DM development in their offspring (64). Exposure to the Chinese famine during the 1960s showed similar adverse outcomes for offspring, with women having higher prevalence of metabolic disorders such as diabetes, hypertriglyceridemia, and hypertension (65). A cross-sectional study of subjects exposed to the Biafran famine during the Nigerian Civil War showed derangements in their metabolic profile during adulthood with increased risk for diabetes in both middle-aged men and non-pregnant women (66) (see Table 1). These data highlight that adverse early experiences, whether psychological or nutritional in nature during vulnerable developmental periods can impact offspring insulin and glucose metabolism during adulthood (Table 1).

TABLE 1
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Table 1. Human early-life stress studies exploring metabolic outcomes.

Despite increasingly available epidemiological evidence, the mechanisms driving stress effects to lower birth weight remain largely unknown. Changes in HPA axis function in individuals of low birth weight have been identified. A group of adult men born with low birth weight had increased HPA axis responsiveness, which was shown to be associated with metabolic risk factors including blood pressure and increased triglycerides (80). Thus epidemiological evidence generally suggests early-life stress induces perturbed HPA axis function and alters neuroendocrine axis responsiveness. The increasing evidence demonstrating the risk of early-life stress and later metabolic disorders emphasizes the need to explore the mechanisms underlying this association. Targets for intervention, whether through pharmacological means or through lifestyle modification, need to be identified to reduce this identified risk. It is important to note that not all individuals exposed to adverse early environments develop metabolic deficits later in life; these differences may relate to genetic makeup and the environment to which the individual is exposed throughout life.

The Effect of Later Environment on Health Outcomes Following Early-Life Stress

Early-life stress in combination with a sub-optimal later environment, such as a sedentary lifestyle, increased consumption of high energy food or persistent adulthood stress may alter the risk for developing metabolic disorders throughout life. Humans and rodents are able to habituate and adapt to the environmental conditions to which they are exposed (8183). This adaptation occurs in prediction of exposure to similar situations in the future, and under normal conditions is of significant value, improving future resilience and coping in these situations (see Figure 2). However, it is suggested that if adaptation is inadequate, maladaptive, or future environment differs from the programed phenotype, there is increased disease susceptibility (8487). Determining the long term consequences of early-life stress-induced changes in neuronal structure, and hormonal and nutritional status across different environments is an important public health concern. Although prevention or mitigation of early-life stress is the ideal, if through modulating the later environment (e.g., providing a positive environment) disease risk can be attenuated, important targets for intervention can be identified.

Stress throughout adulthood negatively influences lifestyle choices that are risk factors for metabolic disease, such as alterations in eating behavior, intake of high-fat food (88), drug addiction (89, 90), and reduced physical activity levels (91). Given this, it is critical to determine whether early-life stress can have a lasting influence on adult behavioral choices. Indeed, parental care factors play a key role in developing health behaviors and outcomes in children (92, 93). Parental behaviors are often imitated by children, thus a push to improve attitudes in parents, whether through reducing stress, improving eating attitudes or increasing physical activity may foster improved health status in successive generations. Recent research showed a direct association between activity levels of parents and their preschool-aged children (94). Additionally, the behavioral profile that results from early-life stress heightens the risk for impaired psychosocial function and psychiatric disorders, and this may independently influence metabolic disease risk. Future human studies must focus on these lifestyle factors during critical exposure periods and throughout adult life.

Prenatal Stress and Impact of Later Environment: Human Studies

Prenatal exposure to adverse environments such as famine have been associated with poorer lifestyle choices including smoking incidence (66), HFD consumption, and reduced physical activity (95, 96). As explored, a possible consequence of gestational stress is preterm birth or low birth weight. Total physical activity levels (97) and non-conditioning leisure time physical activity levels (98) were not influenced by low birth weight. Despite this, adults born preterm with very low birth weight (i.e., less than 1500 g) had reduced smoking rates, yet were less likely to engage in leisure time physical activity with reduced energy expenditure than normal gestational birth controls (98). Further, healthy children aged 5–8 years old who were born prematurely were shown to have reduced physical ability to normal gestational age controls (99). Physical activity has been shown to improve health outcomes following premature birth, with 4 weeks of passive range of motion and compression exercises in premature infants shown to increase bone mineral density. The authors suggested that early exercise programs may improve physical fitness in later life (100). The unequivocal benefits of physical activity should be considered as a therapeutic tool, with activity levels inversely associated with metabolic syndrome (101). In low birth weight individuals, physical activity has been shown to modestly attenuate the association between low birth weight and insulin resistance, as assessed by HOMA-IR (102). Although this finding has not been replicated by other studies (97, 103), physical activity was identified as a better predictor of HOMA-IR comparative to birth weight a possible target for intervention (103).

Postnatal Stress and Impact of Later Environment: Human Studies

There are limited data exploring the metabolic outcomes of postnatal stress and environment interaction. Early-life stress has been associated with later life addiction problems, including drug and food addiction (104). Adult women who were abused as children were significantly heavier and had a marked increase in food addiction risk (105). Early-life maternal stress has been positively correlated with the risk of the infant being overweight in an environment of high food security (see Table 1). Infants exposed to maternal stress during periods of food insecurity showed no significant overweight risk (74) (see Figure 2). One limitation of this study is the low socioeconomic status of the participants, as this is an individual risk factor for the development of childhood and adult obesity, amongst other health issues. Similar to these findings, the number of parental stressors and degree of perceived stress were positively associated with child obesity and increased fast-food consumption (106). Children and adolescents are susceptible to stress, and given the association between perceived stress and increased food consumption frequency and palatability (107109), environmental factors such as palatable food access and physical activity may play a mediating factor between human early-life stress and poor metabolic outcomes.

Physical activity may facilitate a protective role against childhood stressors, with more active children showing reduced salivary cortisol response to stressful situations, reflective of lower HPA axis reactivity (110). In addition to alterations in stress mediators, childhood maltreatment has been independently associated with elevated levels of inflammatory markers in adulthood (76, 111) (see Table 1). Increased inflammation following early-life stress is clinically relevant and may provide an important causal link between adverse early-life experience and adulthood metabolic risk. The benefits of physical activity on immune function and inflammation are well-established, with reductions in inflammatory biomarkers associated with disease (112).

Prenatal Stress and Impact of Later Environment: Animal Studies

Given the global epidemic of metabolic disease, examining the growing body of animal evidence linking prenatal stress with impaired metabolic profile when exposed to energy dense, palatable diets is imperative. The effects of stress during pregnancy on metabolic consequences in later life are well characterized relative to stress during the early postnatal period (22). Identifying how programed changes during early life adversely impact susceptibility to later life nutrition is critical and could provide targets for intervention (see Figure 2). Two common models of prenatal stress exposure involve subjecting dams to a single stressor during gestation, for instance restraint stress. Alternatively, dams can be exposed to a combination of variable stressors such as restraint, air puff startle, forced swimming, starvation, and bright light exposure (113).

Evidence to support a programed resilience to later life metabolic deficits following prenatal early-life stress has been observed in some animal studies. For example, independent of body weight, adult female offspring of stressed dams consuming standard laboratory chow, had a lower insulin area under the curve (AUC) during an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) (114), reduced plasma insulin, and improvements in HOMA-IR (24) compared to offspring of non-stressed dams. This improvement in insulin sensitivity is suggestive of a prenatal early-life stress programing of glucose handling in insulin sensitive tissues. However, it is unknown if these improvements in insulin sensitivity following prenatal early-life stress will be sustained as animals age. Exposure of offspring to a later negative environment following prenatal stress, such as an HFD, induces maladaptation, rather than resilience (see Figure 2). Offspring of stressed dams weaned onto an HFD showed alterations in metabolic parameters with female rats shown to have an elevated glucose AUC during an OGTT, relative to control and stress-chow groups, whilst HFD fed males of stressed dams required a greater amount of insulin to clear a given glucose load relative to control (114). In a similar study, prenatal stress did not alter glucose clearance as assessed through intraperitoneal glucose tolerance test (IPGTT), yet, female offspring exposed to stress had increased visceral and retroperitoneal fat depot mass after 10 weeks on a high-fat sucrose diet relative to unstressed controls consuming the same diet (24).

The mechanisms by which prenatal stress alters later life metabolic outcome remain unknown. Stress during pregnancy alters maternal hormones, including circulating glucocorticoid levels. Normal physiological levels of glucocorticoids during development are essential for tissue growth and maturation, however, excess levels of glucocorticoids, e.g., through pharmacological interventions, have been shown to affect maturation (115, 116). Elevated maternal glucocorticoid can cross the placenta (117), and this has been shown to affect growth, morphology, and function of brain and peripheral tissues during fetal development (118). Seckl (119) has demonstrated a stress-mediated mechanism that underpins the low birth weight and increased risk for adulthood health deficits; exposure to increased level of glucocorticoids either synthetically (dexamethasone) during late gestation or via stress (malnutrition, adverse environment exposures) reduces birth weight and impacts maturation of major organs (119, 120). Dams exposed to prenatal variable stress were shown to have heavier adrenal mass and lower fecal corticosterone secretion vs. non-stressed controls (121). This is suggestive of a reduced corticosterone clearance in these stressed dams during gestation. Excess glucocorticoid exposure during pregnancy has also been shown to affect glucose and insulin metabolism (17, 122, 123).

To model periods of nutritional stress in humans, such as famine, reduced nutritional availability during gestation can be used, enabling investigation of the developmental and programing outcomes on offspring (124126). Restricting dams to 30% of normal food intake, led to low birth weight offspring; pups who were undernourished then weaned onto HFD were found to have significantly elevated leptin, C-peptide, insulin, and body fat compared to control-HFD pups. Notably, injection with leptin for 10 days during lactation (PND3–13) completely normalized these markers (127), suggesting normal maternal levels of leptin are important during development. Food intake and activity levels are also influenced by nutritional insult during gestation. Offspring of female Wistar rats undernourished during gestation (30% of ad libitum) showed significantly reduced locomotor activity with marked hyperphagia and hyperleptinemia when consuming either standard chow or a high caloric diet (128). Leptin is a critical adipocyte derived hormone known to play an essential role in the regulation of feeding and in the maintenance of energy homeostasis. Adult rats exposed to a single 24-h deprivation period during the lactation period demonstrated marked reductions in leptin, although this is difficult to interpret due to the nutritional insult that would have accompanied 24 h of starvation (40, 129, 130).

Postnatal Stress and Impact of Later Environment: Animal Studies

Various models of postnatal early-life stress have explored the influence of later life environmental insults on metabolic function, each of which seem to elicit different outcomes and sex-specific effects (see Table 2). Work in our lab demonstrated HFD fed male rats previously exposed to maternal separation, have marked elevations in plasma insulin, and decreased total white adipose tissue mass, independent of body weight vs. HFD controls (131, 132). In agreement, maternal deprivation induced early adulthood hyperinsulinemia and impairments in insulin sensitivity, measured through HOMA-IR, in male offspring fed with an HFD relative to HFD controls (130). Similar metabolic changes are observed in maternal deprivation exposed female offspring, with HFD shown to cause early adulthood hyperinsulinemia, at PND35 compared to PND102 in control rats consuming an HFD (130). Further, maternally deprived female rats consuming a high-fat sucrose diet had a trend for decreased fat depot mass vs. control (121). Less work has examined the metabolic profile arising subsequent to early-life stress induced by LN material. A recent study explored for the first time the metabolic profile in Wistar female rats; showing reduced body weight at weaning, and reduced food intake, suggesting altered energy utilization and storage. Interestingly, these pups had exaggerated HPA axis activity with delayed clearance of corticosterone from the circulation, and taken together these data further suggest an early-life stress-induced interaction between the HPA axis and metabolic profile (133) (see Table 2).

TABLE 2
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Table 2. Postnatal early-life stress and metabolic consequences in rodents.

Few studies have explored biological characteristics of peripheral tissues following early-life stress. Recently, maternally deprived female rats were shown to have significantly reduced brown adipose tissue β3-adrenergic receptor mRNA expression and increased white adipose tissue prohibitin mRNA relative to control, with no change in UCP-1 (136). The authors concluded these results may facilitate adipose tissue proliferation later in life. An altered response to nutritional challenge following early-life stress is not only observed in high caloric fed states. Maternally separated rats consuming an omega-3 deficient diet demonstrated marked elevations in plasma insulin and impaired insulin sensitivity, as assessed by HOMA-IR, relative to control animals consuming the same diet (134). Functional studies performed by our lab have demonstrated attenuated adulthood outcomes of early-life stress when siblings are provided with a positive environment of voluntary running wheel exercise (see Figure 2). Male rats exposed to maternal separation and weaned onto a standard chow diet demonstrated a hyper-responsive corticosterone response to novel restraint stress, which was dampened with exercise and HFD. Impaired changes in metabolic parameters of insulin and diet-induced obesity were also attenuated with exercise, reversing maternal separation-induced hyperinsulinemia and increased body weight relative to HFD controls and stressed sedentary counterparts (132).

A common aspect across early-life stress models centers around glucocorticoid exposure and HPA axis activation during the stress-hypo-responsive period, a stage of neonatal resilience to mild stressors suggested to likely trigger corticosterone secretion in adult life (84). Synthetic glucocorticoid administration attempts to replicate stress models, as this elicits an HPA axis response during the early postnatal period in rodents (41, 138). This also allows for controlled dose administration and with necessary caution can improve understanding of the impact of glucocorticoid exposure during these critical periods. Early-life corticosterone administration reduced adult female rat body weight and decreased fat depot mass relative to control (139). Studies of glucocorticoid administration highlight the marked influence of combining stress hormones and additional metabolic insults. In young male Sprague-Dawley rats, glucocorticoid administration alone did not alter insulin sensitivity, assessed by HOMA-IR, or glucose disposal following an OGTT (140). Conversely, consumption of a palatable HFD in combination with glucocorticoid exposure is known to induce a marked increase in fasting plasma glucose and insulin, with impaired glucose clearance following OGTT (140, 141). Further investigation is required to determine whether the unaltered or improved insulin sensitivity with chow consumption would prove deleterious in the long term (as shown in Figure 2).

Early-Life Stress and Programing of Peripheral Tissues

Mechanisms Underlying Early-Life Stress-Induced Metabolic Deficits: Role of the HPA Axis, Glucocorticoid, and Tissue 11β-HSD1

To uncover the mechanisms underlying early-life stress-induced metabolic derangements, it is first essential to understand the action of glucocorticoids at different concentrations on glucose and insulin homeostasis and lipid metabolism. At pharmacological doses, glucocorticoids act as potent anti-inflammatory agents but high levels of circulating glucocorticoids result in metabolic derangements including increased visceral adiposity, dyslipidemia (increased levels of triglycerides), increased non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA) (142144), and impaired glucose and insulin tolerance (145147). In contrast to the anabolic actions of insulin, glucocorticoids are predominantly catabolic, decreasing glucose utilization and insulin sensitivity with both human and animal data revealing insulin intolerance with excess exposure (145, 148).

Glucocorticoids exert tissue-specific metabolic effects, directly targeting tissues for insulin metabolism, and they regulate skeletal muscle, liver, and adipocyte insulin signaling (149). Glucocorticoids alter glucose and protein metabolism; increased levels of glucocorticoids induced during stress increase protein degradation, which results in the generation of amino acids that serve as precursor for glucose synthesis in the liver. In addition, excess glucocorticoids inhibit glucose uptake into muscle by inhibiting translocation of glucose transporter-4 (150152). Chronically increased circulating or tissue glucocorticoid levels may also lead to insulin resistance, hypertriglyceridemia, and hepatic steatosis (see Figure 1). Circulating glucocorticoid concentrations are tightly controlled by activation of the HPA axis, however, tissue-specific availability is regulated by multiple means including glucocorticoid receptor expression, receptor affinity, and alterations in glucocorticoid metabolism and clearance.

FIGURE 1
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Figure 1. How does ELS increase the risk for insulin resistance and hyperglycemia? Early-life stress (ELS) induced by three different paradigms including maternal deprivation, maternal separation, and limited nesting material are known to dysregulate HPA axis activity, with limited data on the effects of ELS on hypothalamic feeding neuropeptides and inflammation. It is proposed that ELS disturbs circulating glucocorticoids (GC) through a combined action of HPA axis activity, hypothalamic feeding neuropeptides, and inflammatory changes. The effects of ELS on liver 11β-HSD1, an enzyme that converts inactive GC to active GC, and 5α-reductase, an enzyme involved in GC metabolism, is less known. It is proposed that during the maladaptation period, ELS affects tissue levels of these enzymes, thus increasing exposure of peripheral tissues to GC. Excess GC availability can alter insulin signaling, leading to hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance over time. Thus, increases in circulating and tissue GC induced by ELS act synergistically to exacerbate insulin resistance in peripheral tissues and alter energy expenditure and utilization. ELS, early-life stress; MD, maternal deprivation; MS, maternal separation; LN, limited nesting material; GC, glucocorticoids; TNF-α, tumor necrosis factor alpha; IL-6, interleukin 6; IL-1β, interleukin-1 beta; 11β-HSD1, 11-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase.

Mechanisms regulating intracellular glucocorticoid concentrations are critical to understand the impact of stress on energy metabolism including energy expenditure, storage, and utilization. Intracellular levels of glucocorticoids are influenced by 11β-HSD1 with the type-1 isoform predominantly expressed in the liver (153) and to a lesser degree in adipose and skeletal muscle (154). Evidence shows that tissue glucocorticoid levels are regulated by 11-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11β-HSD1) in target tissues (155) as 11β-HSD1 converts inactive cortisone to biologically active cortisol (156, 157). The liver is a major site of glucocorticoid metabolism where 11β-HSD1 regulates the access of glucocorticoid to the glucocorticoid receptor, leading to glucocorticoid metabolism which, is regulated by 5-alpha/beta reductase levels (155, 158). Fat, liver, and muscle-specific increases in 11β-HSD1 are known to increase the risk for metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, and hyperlipidemia (159, 160). Tissue glucocorticoid amplifies the action of insulin to promote lipogenesis within hepatocytes (161). 11β-HSD1 in the liver increases glucocorticoid action in liver to stimulate gluconeogenesis and inhibit beta-oxidation of fat, thus promoting lipid synthesis (162164). A very recent study demonstrated reduced 5-alpha reductase was associated with fatty liver (165). Thus liver-specific glucocorticoid synthesis and clearance regulated by 11β-HSD1 and 5-alpha reductase appear to affect hepatic lipid accumulation. Interestingly, animal studies demonstrate a link between hepatic glucocorticoid metabolism with regulation of HPA axis activity and lipid synthesis in the liver. For example, transgenic overexpression of 11β-HSD1 in liver of null mice normalized the exaggerated HPA axis activity in response to stress, and led to fatty liver (166, 167). On the other hand, hepatic deletion of 11β-HSD1 led to hyperactivity of the HPA axis (168). These studies suggest liver 11β-HSD1 greatly contributes to amplify circulating glucocorticoid levels, and thus likely mediates the negative feedback activity to dampen HPA axis activity, a concept previously proposed by Chapman et al. (169). Several studies have demonstrated a blunted activity of the HPA axis in response to novel stress following high energy diets such as high sugar or HFD either after adulthood chronic stress or chronic stress exposure during early life (131, 132, 170). As these studies did not report measures of liver 11β-HSD1, it is not clear whether under-activity of the HPA axis following early-life stress and postnatal high energy diet is modulated by liver 11β-HSD1 levels.

Thus, liver 11β-HSD1-HPA axis is a potential pathway in early-life stress-mediated metabolic disturbances, particularly insulin sensitivity, glucose metabolism and lipid synthesis, and mobilization as outlined in Box 1. This hypothesis, however, needs systematic examination in the future. Early-life stress, modeled through prenatal dexamethasone treatment, has been shown to upregulate 11β-HSD1 in peripheral tissues such as liver, pancreas, and subcutaneous fat in rat offspring at 4 months with persistent increases at 1 year of age (171). Interestingly, it was previously shown that early-life stress alters the expression of liver 5-alpha reductase mRNA (172, 173). Thus, this suggests a programing effect of early-life stress on tissue 11β-HSD1 expression, glucocorticoid metabolism, and glucocorticoid signaling. There has been limited evidence regarding early postnatal stress effects on 11β-HSD1 expression and glucocorticoid metabolism of peripheral tissues, which needs to be explored in future studies (Figure 1).

Box 1. Outstanding research questions/proposals.

1. Does chronic exposure to negative postnatal environments such as HFD and adulthood stressors lead to maladaptation following early-life stress?

2. Is the stress-induced perturbation of metabolic profile mediated by the liver 11β-HSD1-HPA axis interaction?

3. How can positive postnatal environments reverse the early-life stress-induced metabolic damage?

4. What are the mechanism(s) underlying early-life stress-induced improvement of insulin sensitivity and improved glucose metabolism if rodents are maintained on chow diet?

We propose that early-life stress may alter availability of tissue glucocorticoids and glucocorticoid signaling. Specifically, we propose that during the maladaptation period (see Figure 2), early-life stress enhances availability of tissue glucocorticoids via increases in liver 11β-HSD1. The tissue glucocorticoid-induced insulin resistance may involve glucocorticoids altering insulin signaling via increasing phosphorylation of PKB/akt, which stimulates insulin secretion, that is, glucocorticoids work synergistically with insulin which increases adipocyte lipolysis and liver lipogenesis (see Figure 1). Another possibility is that early-life stress impairs glucocorticoid signaling involving glucocorticoid–glucocorticoid receptor binding and phosphorylation of the glucocorticoid receptor. Impairment in glucocorticoid signaling leads to alteration in glucocorticoid targeted genes that regulate hepatic glucose production, and hepatic lipogenesis including peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma, coactivator 1 alpha (PGC1-alpha), phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK), glucose 6-phosphate (G6P), and diacylglycerol acyltransferase (DGAT). Genes known to mediate hepatic lipid accumulation such as PGC1-alpha and adipose DGAT1 were altered in rat pups from dams that had been subjected to prenatal stress (174). PGC1-alpha plays an essential role in fatty acid oxidation while increased DGAT1 in adipose tissue increases lipogenesis. DGAT1 transgenic mice fed with an HFD demonstrated a 300% increase in liver triglycerides suggesting a redistribution of the fat from adipose tissue to liver via re-esterification of fatty acid with glycerol (175). Another study showed that prenatal stress induced through manipulation of the availability of food, that is either by limiting intake, or exposing to a high energy food during pregnancy led to fatty liver in pups relative to controls (176).

FIGURE 2
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Figure 2. The combination of early-life stress exposure with altered later environment may determine metabolic outcomes. Early-life stress (ELS) exposure during gestation or the postnatal period is hypothesized to influence an offspring’s response to later environments (85, 87). This programing occurs in an attempt to facilitate habituation and resilience to future similar situations. Offspring exposed to environments that do not differ to that to which they were exposed during early life, i.e., “matched” or positive environments, such as exposure to exercise have been shown to adapt and demonstrate resilience (74, 114, 131, 132). Conversely, exposure to a negative environment, i.e., “mismatched,” such as a sub-optimal diet (131, 132, 134) or chronic stress following ELS may lead to maladaptation, and metabolic deficits, with increased levels of triglycerides, free fatty acids, adiposity, and insulin resistance as measured by HOMA-IR. Thus, there is a pendulum of vulnerability and the trajectory following ELS is influenced by the later life environment.

In conclusion, the role of liver 11β-HSD1 in regulating HPA axis activity, and whether it is modulated by stress early in life, warrants investigation. We propose that early-life stress induces changes in glucocorticoid metabolism and signaling, likely mediating the metabolic consequences reported. The question of how these affect glucocorticoid-induced insulin dependent processes, including hyperinsulinemia and lipid metabolism following an early-life stress exposure will be addressed in the following section.

Proposal of How ELS may Increase Risk of Insulin Resistance, and Hyperglycemia

It has been known for decades that stress early in life in both humans and animals can affect HPA axis activity in later life (131, 132, 177179), however, the effects of early-life stress on hypothalamic neuropeptides involved in feeding are less well known, with only a few studies exploring hypothalamic neuropeptides following maternal separation or deprivation (131, 180). Feeding regulation, which is tightly regulated by orexigenic and anorexigenic hypothalamic neuropeptides, is also influenced by HPA axis activity and circulating glucocorticoid concentrations (181, 182). Glucocorticoids stimulate feeding responses by increasing the release of neuropeptide Y (NPY) and inhibiting that of corticotrophin releasing hormone in the hypothalamus however the orexigenic effect of glucocorticoids may be counteracted by leptin (183).

Mela and colleagues explored the effect of 24 h of maternal deprivation on postnatal day 9 in rats on hypothalamic feeding neuropeptides measured at 14 weeks of age in rats fed with chow or HFD (130). No significant differences in orexigenic (NPY, agouti-related peptide (AgRP) and anorexigenic (pro-opiomelanocortin and cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript) neuropeptides were observed between the chow and HFD fed rats. An interesting finding in this study was that while HFD did not alter these neuropeptides in control females, rats that experienced maternal deprivation had significantly decreased hypothalamic NPY and AgRP mRNA expression and a significant increase in hypothalamic pro-opiomelanocortin and cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript relative to their chow counterparts. The increased caloric intake by HFD fed rats relative to their chow counterparts was similar between the maternally deprived and control rats. But an increased plasma leptin concentration in the maternally deprived HFD fed female rats suggests a programing effect of maternal deprivation which dysregulated feeding homeostasis. Whether this may be linked to either the HPA axis activity or tissue-specific availability of glucocorticoids needs to be explored in the future. The significantly reduced fasting triglycerides and lack of change in fasting insulin by HFD feeding is puzzling, and these may be related to either the strain or the diet used. Thus, use of appropriate controls and dietary conditions are critical to enable exploration of the underlying mechanisms linking combined early-life stress and high-fat feeding with later metabolic risk. Overall, limited studies have directly investigated whether early-life stress affects hypothalamic neuropeptides and inflammation.

The increased availability of glucocorticoids discussed above may play a role in altering tissue insulin signaling by increasing the phosphorylation of PKB/akt. Animals exposed to early-life stress may be resilient to the increased availability of tissue glucocorticoids and thus subsequently show a dampened secretion of insulin. While there are no systematic studies on early-life stress and metabolic consequences, there is evidence in rodents showing early-life stress does not affect basal metabolic hormones if animals consume chow, including non-fasted plasma insulin and leptin (131, 132). Another study demonstrated improved insulin sensitivity following early-life stress when measured during adulthood (170). Taken together, we propose that early-life stress may lead to resilience, and thus the organism potentially may adapt to any changes in the postnatal environment, such as exposure to high energy diet, or later stressors through enhanced negative feedback sensitivity of the HPA axis activity and reprograming of the peripheral tissue sensitivity to glucocorticoid exposure (see Figure 2). However, if an organism exposed to early-life stress is chronically exposed to these negative postnatal environments (high energy diet and later stressors), the enhanced negative feedback sensitivity maybe dysregulated, resulting in perturbed HPA axis activity, leading to a phase known as maladaptation (see Figure 2). Indeed there is evidence that such maladaptations can influence glucose/insulin homeostasis, resulting in the manifestation of metabolic disorders including insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, as suggested in Figure 2.

During periods of maladaptation, increased tissue glucocorticoids and circulating corticosterone will impair the insulin signaling pathway, leading to hypersecretion of insulin; a condition leading to insulin resistance (see Figure 2). This will mediate tissue specific effects, that is, increased adipose lipolysis through beta-oxidation which releases free fatty acids into the circulation and re-esterification in the liver to promote lipogenesis. In addition, increased tissue glucocorticoid levels via insulin stimulation increases hepatic glucose production. Prenatal stress has been shown to increase hepatic PEPCK mRNA and this was enhanced with high energy feeding (174). There are no data thus far on the impact of early postnatal stress on hepatic glucose production, which is an important measure to be considered for future studies to improve understanding of the link between postnatal stress and risk of pre- or diabetes. In addition, increased glucocorticoid-induced hyperinsulinemia also alters the muscle glucose utilization via affecting the glucose transporter gene and expression, including the GLUT4-transporter.

Conclusion and Future Directions

Despite significant progress in the field of early life programing and metabolic disease risk many challenges exist. Human studies are vital in providing evidence of the association between early-life adversity and disease incidence but data must be interpreted with necessary caution. A majority of human evidence is based on parental or offspring self-report raising the possibility of confounding due to issues with information recall, lack of accuracy, and the potential for bias.

Future studies in humans should seek to better quantify stress exposure during the early-life period and at the time of assessment to improve knowledge of how different stress types may alter disease risk. Given both environment and genetic predisposition determine health outcome, studies should not only consider stressor experience during early life but also control for socioeconomic status, food and education availability, ethnicity, and lifestyle factors such as nutritional status, smoking, and physical activity throughout their lifetime.

According to the hypothesis explored throughout this review, programed adaptation during early life occurs in an attempt to adapt to the predicted later life environment and hence even seemingly trivial variations in stressors during these periods may vary the observed outcomes. Inconsistency in findings across experiments could be due to the marked differences in study design. Procedural variations in maternal separation have been reviewed elsewhere (177). In the literature, there is no consistent procedure, rather multiple experimental conditions fall under the broad term of maternal separation. Thus, duration, and age at separation, temperature in which pups are separated, whether pups are isolated from litter mates during separation and whether pups are removed or remain in their home cage have all been shown to influence behavioral outcomes and brain function. Animal models must consider the influence of maternal care on long term outcomes, which is a major aspect the novel model of limiting nesting material attempts to explore. Work exploring prenatal or gestational stress exposure could benefit from cross-fostering to better delineate effects of maternal stress and the influence of received postnatal care. Offspring of low care dams that were cross-fostered by high-licking high arched back nursing dams were resilient in terms of the decline in hippocampal synaptogenesis and spatial learning seen in offspring reared by low care dams (184).

Animal research should ultimately aim to improve public health outcomes. To ensure this, analysis of behavioral, physiological, and molecular parameters is required. The current literature lacks assessment of whole body insulin sensitivity measures or assessment of β-cell structural changes – key factors that influence metabolic outcome. Models need to reflect the human condition upon which they are based, which brings the need for valid controls. Given the complex heterogeneity of both the stress system and metabolic disease the phenotype of experimental animals would ideally be comprehensively assessed, rather than examining single factors. Species and strain differences must be considered and these animals must be valid models for the environmental conditions that the study aims to investigate.

Investigation of the environmental influence provides us with an opportunity to better identify factors determining vulnerability and resilience to early-life experience. A better understanding of factors driving the association between genetic predisposition with both early and adult environment will help with the identification of targets for intervention with the hope of minimizing disease incidence. As known, high energy feeding impairs glucose and insulin tolerance and affects lipid metabolism, thus chronic HFD could serve as a good model to study the altered effects of early-life stress on metabolism. Our lab and others have shown early evidence that HFD or altered nutrition lead to altered insulin levels in early-life stressed animals relative to control (131, 132, 134, 170). Together these studies appear to suggest that both short term diet and long term diet exaggerate plasma insulin. Despite this, a single marker or circulating hormone levels limit ability to draw conclusions of how early-life stress may exert negative impact on insulin sensitivity and overall metabolic risk. Future studies need to adopt a mechanistic approach, examining animals using appropriate metabolic tests that will provide answers to the outstanding questions outlined in Box 1. An alternate model of early-life stress, variable foraging demand, demonstrated impaired insulin resistance in non-human primates as measured by hyperglycemic-insulin clamp (185). Functional studies in rodent early-life stress models, such as glucose or insulin tolerance tests, or preferably glucose clamp, would be useful to explore this further.

In conclusion, the mechanisms whereby adverse early-life events accelerate metabolic deficits have received little attention to date. When combined with a sub-optimal subsequent environment (e.g., poor diet, stress, physical inactivity) early-life stress may exacerbate the risk of metabolic disease. One potential mechanism underlying early-life stress-induced metabolic deficits is the interaction between the HPA axis and liver 11β-HSD1. Positive later environments may modulate the negative impact of early-life stress not only on behavioral outcomes, but also on metabolism. Given the burgeoning issues of metabolic and mental health disorders, the question of how early-life stress impacts subsequent disease risk warrants further investigation.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Keywords: early-life stress, metabolic disorders, 11-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 1, hyperinsulinemia, liver, insulin signaling, glucocorticoids

Citation: Maniam J, Antoniadis C and Morris MJ (2014) Early-life stress, HPA axis adaptation, and mechanisms contributing to later health outcomes. Front. Endocrinol. 5:73. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2014.00073

Received: 31 December 2013; Accepted: 28 April 2014;
Published online: 13 May 2014.

Edited by:

Rachel Yehuda, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, USA

Reviewed by:

Aldo Lucion, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Gábor B. Makara, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Hungary

Copyright: © 2014 Maniam, Antoniadis and Morris. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Margaret J. Morris, Department of Pharmacology, School of Medical Sciences, UNSW Australia, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia e-mail: m.morris@unsw.edu.au