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Small size at birth is associated with exaggerated blood pressure responses to psychological stressors, which increase the risk of developing sustained hypertension in adult life. Explanatory mechanisms for this association are not well characterized. We investigated the hypothesis that an adverse fetal environment, reflected by small size at birth, persistently alters autonomic nervous system and baroreflex control of cardiovascular function, resulting in exaggerated blood pressure and heart rate responses to stressors. Men and women from an Australian prospective cohort study underwent a series of 3 psychological stressors (Stroop, mirror-tracing, and speech) while their blood pressure was recorded continuously using a Portapres. Indices of autonomic function were derived using spectrum analysis (wavelet packet transform), and baroreflex function was estimated using an adaptive autoregressive model. We found that women who were small at birth demonstrated increased levels of low-frequency blood pressure variability at rest (r=-0.28; P<0.05) and during stress (r=-0.42; P<0.001), reduced levels of high-frequency heart period variability (r=0.22; P<0.05), and reduced baroreflex sensitivity (r=0.34; P<0.01). These findings were not present in the men. This study provides evidence that markers of impaired fetal growth are related to autonomic cardiovascular control involving modulation of both sympathetic and parasympathetic function but in a sex-specific manner. We also provide the first human evidence of a relationship between size at birth and baroreflex function. © 2007 American Heart Association, Inc.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





548 - 555