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Physiol Behav. 1999 Apr;66(2):293-302.

Periodic maternal deprivation induces gender-dependent alterations in behavioral and neuroendocrine responses to emotional stress in adult rats.

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  • 1Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich, Germany.


There is evidence that stressful events during the neonatal "stress hyporesponsive period" may influence both emotional behavior and the maturation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in rats. We tested whether periodic maternal deprivation (180 min daily on postnatal days 3-10, PMD) caused chronic changes in emotional behavior and HPA axis activity in either male or female adult rats, or both. In addition, HPA secretory responses to human/rat corticotropin-releasing factor (CRH, 50 ng/kg i.v.) were determined in the adult males. In the elevated plus-maze test, adult (4-5 months of age) PMD-treated animals of both sexes displayed increased anxiety-related behavior compared to control rats. This was indicated by a reduction in the number of entries (male: 70% reduction, p < 0.01; female: 31% reduction, p < 0.01) and amount of time spent on the open arms (male: 86% reduction, p < 0.01; female: 40% reduction, NS). Neuroendocrine parameters were also altered in PMD-treated rats in a gender-dependent manner. Whereas basal plasma adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) and corticosterone levels did not differ significantly between PMD and control groups of either sex, the ACTH response to elevated plus-maze exposure, a predominantly emotional stressor, was higher in male (p < 0.01), but not female, PMD animals than in the respective controls. In contrast, PMD had no effect on behavioral (duration of struggling) or HPA axis responses to forced swimming (90 s, 19 degrees C), a complex and predominantly physical stressor, in either male or female rats. In response to CRH stimulation, PMD-treated males did not show differences in the ACTH secretion compared to controls, indicating alterations in HPA axis regulation at a suprapituitary level. Thus, PMD caused long-term changes in the emotional behavior of adult rats of both sexes, although to a differing degree in males and females, whereas it appeared to cause predominantly alterations in the HPA axis response in males, depending on the characteristics of the stressor used.

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