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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Dec 23;100(26):16131-6. Epub 2003 Dec 12.

Fear of novelty in infant rats predicts adult corticosterone dynamics and an early death.

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  • 1Department of Psychology and Institute for Mind and Biology, University of Chicago, 940 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


Individuals who are fearful of novelty have a larger hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis response than do nonfearful individuals. We hypothesized that a fearful behavioral style emerging early in life would be associated with life-long altered adrenal activity. Because there is ample physiological evidence both costs and benefits of adrenal activation, we determined whether such a stable emotional-neuroendocrine trait was associated with differential morbidity and mortality. To conduct such lifespan work, we studied a relatively short-lived mammal: the Norway rat. We first established that an animal's hesitation or willingness to explore a novel environment ("neophobia" and "neophilia," respectively) is an identifiable and stable behavioral trait in young-adult males and that neophobia, compared with neophilia, was associated with a greater glucocorticoid response to novelty. Second, we were able to detect behavioral differences among infant rats within a family, and this behavioral disposition at infancy predicted the magnitude of the glucocorticoid response in late middle age. Males identified as neophobic during infancy died sooner than their less fearful brothers. Although both types of males died with similar pathologies (tumors), neophobic males were 60% more likely to die at any point in time. This lifespan study identifies an emotional trait in infancy that predicts an early death and an associated neuroendocrine trait in adulthood that is a potential mechanism underlying the relationship between behavioral style and longevity.

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