The University of Newcastle, Australia

Mothers and Babies Research Group


Professor Jon Hirst

Professor Jon Hirst

Research Fellow:

Hannah Palliser

Research Assistant:

Poonam Rani

PhD Students:

Greer Bennett, Julia Shaw, Kirsten McInerney, Angela Cumberland


The laboratory focuses on problems in pregnancy and how these may influence immediate and long term outcomes for the offspring.

The group are most interested in childhood health outcomes following preterm birth, pregnancies affected by fetal growth problems and small for gestational age fetuses.

Growth restriction is the failure of the fetus to grow to its full potential and is also a major contributor to adult diseases. These pregnancy compromises are associated with an increased incidence of behaviour disorders including ADHD and aggressive behaviour in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

The group’s work particularly examines the deficiencies in the steroid hormone environment of the developing brain that may cause these disorders.

The placenta has a key role in controlling growth promoting steroid levels in the fetal brain and so problems with normal development and function lead to marked deficits in steroid supply to the brain.

The group’s studies also examine replacement therapies used shortly after preterm birth to improve outcomes and lessen the likelihood of behavioural problems for those born prematurely or small.

Neurosteroid hormones form a key modulatory system that has a major role in regulating the levels of excitation. Inadequate levels of these hormones have been shown to contribute to major hyperactivity and anxiety disorders.

The objectives of the laboratory’s recent work is to determine if prenatal stress or stress in the neonatal period causes reductions in neurosteroid signalling leading to suboptimal brain development.

The group also examine treatments with a synthetic neurosteroid or a drug that raises neurosteroid production for improving these conditions.