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Brain Behav Immun. 2010 Aug;24(6):1008-17. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2010.04.005. Epub 2010 Apr 23.

NF-kappaB activity affects learning in aversive tasks: possible actions via modulation of the stress axis.

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Section on Functional Neuroanatomy, National Institute of Mental Health, NIH, Bethesda, MD 20892-3724, USA.


The role of altered activity of nuclear factor kappaB (NF-kappaB) in specific aspects of motivated behavior and learning and memory was examined in mice lacking the p50 subunit of the NF-kappaB/rel transcription factor family. Nfkb1-deficient mice are unable to produce p50 and show specific susceptibilities to infections and inflammatory challenges, but the behavioral phenotype of such mice has been largely unexamined, owing in large part to the lack of understanding of the role of NF-kappaB in nervous system function. Here we show that Nfkb1 (p50) knockout mice more rapidly learned to find the hidden platform in the Morris water maze than did wildtype mice. The rise in plasma corticosterone levels after the maze test was greater in p50 knockout than in wildtype mice. In the less stressful Barnes maze, which tests similar kinds of spatial learning, the p50 knockout mice performed similarly to control mice. Adrenalectomy with corticosterone replacement eliminated the differences between p50 knockout and wildtype mice in the water maze. Knockout mice showed increased levels of basal anxiety in the open-field and light/dark box tests, suggesting that their enhanced escape latency in the water maze was due to activation of the stress (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis leading to elevated corticosterone production by strongly but not mildly anxiogenic stimuli. The results suggest that, as in the immune system, p50 in the nervous system normally serves to dampen NF-kappaB-mediated intracellular activities, which are manifested physiologically through elevated stress responses to aversive stimuli and behaviorally in the facilitated escape performance in learning tasks.

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