Document Type


Publication Date



The stress-sensitive maternal hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis through the end-product cortisol, represents a primary pathway through which maternal experience shapes fetal development with long-term consequences for child neurodevelopment. However, there is another HPA axis end-product that has been widely ignored in the study of human pregnancy. The synthesis and release of dehydroepiandosterone (DHEA) is similar to cortisol, so it is a plausible, but neglected, biological signal that may influence fetal neurodevelopment. DHEA also may interact with cortisol to determine developmental outcomes. Surprisingly, there is virtually nothing known about human fetal exposure to prenatal maternal DHEA and offspring neurodevelopment. The current study examined, for the first time, the joint impact of fetal exposure to prenatal maternal DHEA and cortisol on infant emotional reactivity.


Participants were 124 mother–infant dyads. DHEA and cortisol were measured from maternal hair at 15 weeks (early gestation) and 35 weeks (late gestation). Observational assessments of positive and negative emotional reactivity were obtained in the laboratory when the infants were 6 months old. Pearson correlations were used to examine the associations between prenatal maternal cortisol, prenatal maternal DHEA, and infant positive and negative emotional reactivity. Moderation analyses were conducted to investigate whether DHEA might modify the association between cortisol and emotional reactivity.


Higher levels of both early and late gestation maternal DHEA were linked to greater infant positive emotional reactivity. Elevated late gestation maternal cortisol was associated with greater negative emotional reactivity. Finally, the association between fetal cortisol exposure and infant emotional reactivity was only observed when DHEA was low.


These new observations indicate that DHEA is a potential maternal biological signal involved in prenatal programming. It appears to act both independently and jointly with cortisol to determine a child's emotional reactivity. Its role as a primary end-product of the HPA axis, coupled with the newly documented associations with prenatal development shown here, strongly calls for the inclusion of DHEA in future investigations of fetal programming.


This article was originally published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 2024.

jcpp13952-sup-0001-tabless1-s6.docx (44 kB)
Supporting information


The authors

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.