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Braz J Med Biol Res. 1999 Oct;32(10):1229-37.

Effects of prenatal exposure to a mild chronic variable stress on body weight, preweaning mortality and rat behavior.

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Laboratorio de Investigaciones Cerebrales and Cátedra de Farmacología, Facultad de Ciencias Médicas, Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina.


Early stimulation has been shown to produce long-lasting effects in many species. Prenatal exposure to some strong stressors may affect development of the nervous system leading to behavioral impairment in adult life. The purpose of the present work was to study the postnatal harmful effects of exposure to variable mild stresses in rats during pregnancy. Female Holtzman rats were submitted daily to one session of a chronic variable stress (CVS) during pregnancy (prenatal stress; PS group). Control pregnant rats (C group) were undisturbed. The pups of PS and C dams were weighed and separated into two groups 48 h after delivery. One group was maintained with their own dams (PS group, N = 70; C group, N = 36) while the other PS pups were cross-fostered with C dams (PSF group, N = 47) and the other C pups were cross-fostered with PS dams (CF group, N = 58). Pups were undisturbed until weaning (postnatal day 28). The male offspring underwent motor activity tests (day 28), enriched environment tests (day 37) and social interaction tests (day 42) in an animal activity monitor. Body weight was recorded on days 2, 28 and 60. The PS pups showed lower birth weight than C pups (Duncan's test, P<0.05). The PS pups suckling with their stressed mothers displayed greater preweaning mortality (C: 23%, PS: 60%; chi2 test, P<0.05) and lower body weight than controls at days 28 and 60 (Duncan's test, P<0.05 and P<0.01, respectively). The PS, PSF and CF groups showed lower motor activity scores than controls when tested at day 28 (Duncan's test, P<0.01 for PS group and P<0.05 for CF and PSF groups). In the enriched environment test performed on day 37, between-group differences in total motor activity were not detected; however, the PS, CF and PSF groups displayed less exploration time than controls (Duncan's test, P<0.05). Only the PS group showed impaired motor activity and impaired social behavior at day 42 (Duncan's test, P<0.05). In fact, CVS treatment during gestation plus suckling with a previously stressed mother caused long-lasting physical and behavioral changes in rats. Cross-fostering PS-exposed pups to a dam which was not submitted to stress counteracted most of the harmful effects of the treatment. It is probable that prenatal stress plus suckling from a previously stressed mother can induce long-lasting changes in the neurotransmitter systems involved in emotional regulation. Further experiments using neurochemical and pharmacological approaches would be interesting in this model.

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