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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 1999 Aug;24(6):585-611.

Chronic intermittent stress does not differentially alter brain corticosteroid receptor densities in rats prenatally exposed to ethanol.

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Department of Anatomy, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.


Prenatal ethanol exposure produces hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) hyperresponsiveness to stressors. The present study tested the hypothesis that decreased corticosteroid receptor densities at HPA feedback sites may play a role in deficient feedback inhibition and the resultant HPA hyperresponsiveness that is observed following prenatal ethanol exposure. Brains of adult Sprague-Dawley rats from prenatal ethanol (E), pair-fed (PF) and ad libitum-fed control (C) treatment groups were examined for both mineralocorticoid receptor (MR; Type I) and glucocorticoid receptor (GR; Type II) densities using a cytosolic binding assay. Experiment 1 compared the effects of chronic intermittent stress (Stress Regimen I) and corticosterone (CORT) pellet implants on hippocampal corticosteroid receptor densities in control rats. Experiment 2 determined whether exposure to Stress Regimen I would differentially downregulate and whether adrenalectomy (ADX) would differentially upregulate hippocampal corticosteroid receptors in E compared with PF and C animals. Experiment 3 examined the effects of a modified chronic intermittent stress regimen (Stress Regimen II) on corticosteroid receptor densities at several HPA feedback sites (hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, hypothalamus, and anterior pituitary) in E compared with PF and C animals. CORT pellet implants significantly downregulated hippocampal GR and MR densities in control males and females. Exposure to Stress Regimen I produced downregulation of hippocampal GRs and MRs in males comparable with that produced with CORT pellet implants, and significant downregulation of hippocampal GRs in females across all prenatal treatment groups. This stress regimen also elevated basal plasma CORT levels without concurrent changes in plasma CBG levels, and increased relative adrenal weights in both males and females. In addition, upregulation of hippocampal GRs occurred at 7 days compared with 24 h following ADX in females that had previously been exposed to this stress regimen. Following exposure to Stress Regimen II, both the downregulation of hippocampal corticosteroid receptors and the increase in basal CORT levels in males and females appear to have been abolished by the changes in housing condition during the period of chronic stress. Importantly, prenatal ethanol exposure did not differentially alter GR or MR densities at any feedback site under non-stressed conditions. Exposure to Stress Regimen II, revealed subtle effects of prenatal treatments on hippocampal GRs however it is unlikely that these changes in corticosteroid receptor densities mediated the feedback inhibition deficits observed in E animals. Together, these data demonstrate that: (1) a relatively mild intermittent stress regimen can increase basal CORT levels and downregulate hippocampal corticosteroid receptor densities (2) a seemingly small change in housing conditions during stress appears to eliminate both receptor downregulation and increase in basal CORT levels and (3) decreased corticosteroid receptor densities at HPA feedback sites in the brain do not appear to underlie the HPA hyperresponsiveness observed in E animals.

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