, Volume 214, Issue 1, pp 297–307 | Cite as

Prenatal alcohol exposure and cortisol activity in 19-month-old toddlers: an investigation of the moderating effects of sex and testosterone

  • Isabelle Ouellet-Morin
  • Ginette Dionne
  • Sonia J. Lupien
  • Gina Muckle
  • Sylvana Côté
  • Daniel Pérusse
  • Richard E. Tremblay
  • Michel Boivin
original investigation



Early exposure to stress and teratogenic substances have an impact on brain structures involved in cognition and mental health. While moderate-to-high levels of prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) have repeatedly been associated with long-term neurodevelopmental deficits, no consensus has yet been reached on the detrimental effects of low-to-moderate PAE on the children’s functioning, including the limbic–hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis.


The study aims to examine the association between low PAE and cortisol response to unfamiliar situations in 19-month-old children and to determine whether this association was moderated by sex and testosterone levels.


Information regarding PAE, cortisol response to unfamiliar situations, and testosterone activity was available in a total of 130 children participating to the Québec Newborn Twin Study (Montréal, QC, Canada). Mother alcohol consumption during pregnancy was assessed via a semistructured interview conducted when the children were 6 months of age. The contribution of prenatal and postnatal confounds were examined.


Disrupted patterns of cortisol activity were observed only in PAE males. Testosterone tended to be negatively associated with the cortisol response, but not for PAE males, suggesting an altered sensitivity to the inhibitory effects of testosterone in these participants.


Low levels of PAE were associated with disrupted cortisol activity, and males may be at higher risk. These findings challenge the existence of a “safe level” of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and have public health implications.


Prenatal alcohol exposure Stress Teratogens Adversity Cortisol LHPA axis Sex differences Testosterone Children Alcohol Androgen Development Drinking Environmental Glucocorticoid Prenatal Sex differences 



This research was supported by grants from the National Health Research Development Program, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Québec Ministry of Health and Social Services, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Research Chair program, the Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Société et la Culture, and the Fonds de la Recherche en Santé du Québec. Isabelle Ouellet-Morin was supported by fellowships from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the CIHR Training Grant in Genes, Environment, and Health. The funding agencies have no further role in the study design, in the collection, analysis, interpretation of data, and in the writing of the manuscript. We are grateful to the parents and twins of the participating families. We thank Jocelyn Malo for coordinating the data collection and Helene Beaumont, Helene Paradis, Bei Feng, Bernadette Simoneau, and Jacqueline Langlois for the assistance in data management and statistical analyses (H.P. and B.F.).

Supplementary material

213_2010_1955_MOESM1_ESM.doc (42 kb)
Online Resource 1 (DOC 42 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Isabelle Ouellet-Morin
    • 1
  • Ginette Dionne
    • 2
  • Sonia J. Lupien
    • 3
  • Gina Muckle
    • 2
  • Sylvana Côté
    • 4
    • 5
  • Daniel Pérusse
    • 6
  • Richard E. Tremblay
    • 4
    • 7
    • 8
  • Michel Boivin
    • 2
  1. 1.MRC Social, Genetic, and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of PsychiatryKing’s College LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.School of PsychologyUniversité LavalQuébecCanada
  3. 3.Center for Human Stress Research, Fernand-Seguin Research CenterUniversité de MontréalMontréalCanadaH1N 3V2
  4. 4.International Laboratory for Child and Adolescent Mental Health DevelopmentINSERM U669Paris cedex 14France
  5. 5.Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Faculté de MédecineUniversité de MontréalMontréalCanada
  6. 6.Department of AnthropologyUniversité de MontréalMontréalCanada
  7. 7.Department of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and PsychologyUniversité de MontréalMontréalCanada
  8. 8.School of Public Health and Population ScienceUniversity College DublinDublin 4Ireland

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