Adrenocortical function was studied in 52 newborn infants who had been divided into three groups: preterm well, preterm ill, and term ill. Basal plasma 17-hydroxyprogesterone concentrations were significantly increased in both groups of preterm infants. There was no significant difference in basal plasma cortisol concentrations, although they were highest in preterm ill infants. All infants responded to adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) stimulation (36 micrograms/kg intramuscularly) with a two to three fold increase in the concentration of both steroids. The peak plasma 17-hydroxyprogesterone response was significantly higher in preterm ill infants. A subgroup of five infants, who were highly stressed but had undetectable basal plasma cortisol concentrations, also showed an appropriate response to ACTH. The results provide useful reference data to assess adrenal function in the infant of a mother given glucocorticoids during pregnancy. There is also a change from the pattern of fetal adrenal steroidogenesis soon after birth, which may be affected by exogenous ACTH stimulation. Roughly 10% of stressed newborns failed to synthesise cortisol basally; temporary glucocorticoid replacement for such infants may be appropriate.
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