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Behav Sci (Basel). 2012 Jun 1;2(2):79-102. doi: 10.3390/bs2020079.

Developmental neurobiology of the rat attachment system and its modulation by stress.

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  • 1Emotional Brain Institute, Nathan Kline Institute, 140 Old Orangeburg Road, Orangeburg, New York, NY 10962, USA ; Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine, 215 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016, USA ; Center for Neural Science, New York University, 4 Washington Place, New York, NY 10003, USA.


Stress is a powerful modulator of brain structure and function. While stress is beneficial for survival, inappropriate stress dramatically increases the risk of physical and mental health problems, particularly when experienced during early developmental periods. Here we focus on the neurobiology of the infant rat's odor learning system that enables neonates to learn and approach the maternal odor and describe the unique role of the stress hormone corticosterone in modulating this odor approach learning across development. During the first nine postnatal days, this odor approach learning of infant rats is supported by a wide range of sensory stimuli and ensures attachment to the mother's odor, even when interactions with her are occasionally associated with pain. With maturation and the emergence of a stress- or pain-induced corticosterone response, this odor approach learning terminates and a more adult-like amygdala-dependent fear/avoidance learning emerges. Strikingly, the odor approach and attenuated fear learning of older pups can be re-established by the presence of the mother, due to her ability to suppress her pups' corticosterone release and amygdala activity. This suggests that developmental changes in stress responsiveness and the stimuli that produce a stress response might be critically involved in optimally adapting the pup's attachment system to its respective ecological niche.


amygdala; attachment; corticosterone; fear; locus coeruleus; maternal odor; norepinephrine; pup; rat; stress; trauma

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