OBJECTIVES: Microwaves produce various detrimental changes based on actions of heat or non-specific stress, although the effects of microwaves on pregnant organisms has not been uniform. This study was designed to clarify the effect of exposure to microwaves during pregnancy on endocrine and immune functions. METHODS: Natural killer cell activity and natural killer cell subsets in the spleen were measured, as well as some endocrine indicators in blood--corticosterone and adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) as indices of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis--beta-endorphin, oestradiol, and progesterone in six female virgin rats and six pregnant rats (nine to 11 days gestation) exposed to microwaves at 10 mW/cm2 incident power density at 2450 MHz for 90 minutes. The same measurements were performed in control rats (six virgin and six pregnant rats). RESULTS: Skin temperature in virgin and pregnant rats increased immediately after exposure to microwaves. Although splenic activity of natural killer cells and any of the subset populations identified by the monoclonal antibodies CD16 and CD57 did not differ in virgin rats with or without exposure to microwaves, pregnant rats exposed to microwaves showed a significant reduction of splenic activity of natural killer cells and CD16+CD57-. Although corticosterone and ACTH increased, and oestradiol decreased in exposed virgin and pregnant rats, microwaves produced significant increases in beta-endorphin and progesterone only in pregnant rats. CONCLUSIONS: Microwaves at the power of 10 mW/cm2 produced activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and increased oestradiol in both virgin and pregnant rats, suggesting that microwaves greatly stress pregnant organisms. These findings in pregnant rats suggest that--with exposure to microwaves--pregnancy induces immunosuppression, which could result in successful maintainance of pregnancy. This enhancement of adaptability to heat stress with pregnancy may be mediated by activation of placental progesterone and placental or pituitary beta-endorphin.
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