Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation





First Advisor

Dr. Sandra J. Legan


Opiate addiction is now a major public health problem. Pregnant women continue to use opiates during gestation; up to 5.4% of pregnant women report using illicit drugs during pregnancy. Previous studies have shown that perinatal insults and exposure to opiates such as morphine in utero can affect the development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA)-axis of the offspring and are associated with higher risk of developing neurobehavioral problems. Oxycodone, a semisynthetic putative kappa opioid receptor and partial mu opioid receptor agonist is now one of the most frequently abused pain killers during pregnancy, however limited data are available regarding whether and how perinatal oxycodone exposure (POE) alters the development and functions of the HPA-axis, the related stress axis and neurobehavioral outcomes of the offspring. Data from these experiments have provided novel evidence that POE indeed is associated with sex-specific changes in the HPA-axis in response to stress that persist beyond the neonatal period. 1) POE is associated with an increased adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) response to corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), but not the corticosterone (CORT) response to CRH stimulation in late adolescent male offspring. 2) POE is associated with increased CORT, but not ACTH response to restraint stress test in adult female offspring. These changes in the HPA-axis response to stress may be partially explained by 1) an increase in the subpopulation of CRH neurons that also contain estrogen receptor-beta immunoreactivity following POE which then can exaggerate the stimulation of the HPA-axis, and 2) a decrease in mineralocorticoid receptor-mRNA expression in the hippocampus which may be associated with impaired negative feedback control of the HPA-axis by the limbic system. POE is also associated with cardiovascular changes in response to stress during a classical conditioning paradigm; adolescent male POE rats have a larger blood pressure increase than the control group. Although POE male rats can properly discriminate the stress versus non-stress cues in the conditioning paradigm, they do not retain this memory when retested during adulthood. When tested for learning and memory in a water maze, however, we did not find any differences between control rats and rats exposed to high dose oxycodone in utero. In addition, we demonstrated that exposure to the lower dose of oxycodone in utero is associated with hyperactivity in adult rats when tested in an open field. Our results make a significant contribution to the literature because they extend our knowledge about the effects of oxycodone on the developing brain and the resulting outcomes in animal models that are actually relevant to a current major public health problem in humans and will provide a platform for us to further study the underlying mechanisms and interventions that may mitigate these effects.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)