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J Neurosci. 2006 Mar 1;26(9):2434-42.

Neuroplasticity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis early in life requires recurrent recruitment of stress-regulating brain regions.

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  • 1Department of Anatomy/Neurobiology, University of California, Irvine, California 92697-4475, USA.


An eloquent example of experience-induced neuroplasticity involves the enduring effects of daily "handling" of rat pups on the expression of genes regulating hormonal and behavioral responses to stress. Handling-evoked augmentation of maternal care of pups induces long-lasting reduction of hypothalamic corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) expression and upregulates hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor levels. These changes promote a lifelong attenuation of hormonal stress responses. We have found previously that handling-evoked downregulation of CRH expression occurs already by postnatal day 9, implicating it as an early step in this experience-induced neuroplasticity. Here, we investigated the neuronal pathways and cellular mechanisms involved. CRH mRNA expression in hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN) diminished after daily handling but not after handling once only, indicating that "recurrent" handling was required for this effect. Return of handled pups to their cage provoked a burst of nurturing behavior in dams that, in turn, induced transient, coordinate Fos expression in selected regions of the pups' brains. These included central nucleus of the amygdala (ACe) and bed nucleus of the stria terminals (BnST), regions that are afferent to PVN and influence CRH expression there. Whereas handling once sufficed to evoke Fos expression within ACe and BnST, expression in thalamic paraventricular nucleus, a region involved in storing and processing stress-related experience, required recurrent handling. Fos induction in all three regions elicited reduced transcription factor phosphorylation, followed by attenuated activation of CRH gene transcription within the PVN. These studies provide a neurobiological foundation for the profound neuroplasticity of stress-related genes evoked by early-life experience.

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