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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007 Jun;32(5):437-50. Epub 2007 Apr 11.

Opposite effects of maternal separation on intermale and maternal aggression in C57BL/6 mice: link to hypothalamic vasopressin and oxytocin immunoreactivity.

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Department of Behavioral Neuroendocrinology, Institute of Zoology, University of Regensburg, Universitätsstrasse 31, 93053 Regensburg, Germany.


Early life stress, in particular child abuse and neglect, is an acknowledged risk factor for the development of pathological anxiety and aggression. In rodents, 3-h daily maternal separation (MS) during the first 2 weeks of life is an established animal model of early life stress and has repeatedly been shown to increase anxiety and stress responsiveness in adulthood. However, preclinical studies on the effects of postnatal stress on adult aggression are limited. The present study investigated whether MS affects intermale aggression and/or maternal aggression in C57BL/6 mice. In both adult male and virgin female mice, MS elevated anxiety-related behavior as tested on the elevated plus-maze, in the open field and during novel object exploration. The latency to attack an unknown male intruder, as assessed with the resident-intruder test, was significantly longer in MS male mice compared with control male mice. In contrast, the latency to attack a novel male intruder was significantly shorter in MS females compared with control females on days 3 and 5 of lactation. These opposite effects of MS can be explained by the fact that intermale and maternal aggression are two different forms of aggression, and hence, might be modulated by different neurobiological pathways. Indeed, in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus, MS was found to selectively increase vasopressin immunoreactivity in males, whereas MS selectively decreased oxytocin immunoreactivity in lactating females. In conclusion, MS has long-lasting and differential effects on adult intermale and maternal aggression in C57BL/6 mice. Alterations in hypothalamic vasopressin and oxytocin immunoreactivity may, in part, underlie the opposite effects of MS on intermale and maternal aggression. The MS paradigm represents a promising animal model to reveal underlying mechanisms of aggressive behavioral dysfunctions associated with early life stress.

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