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Behav Brain Funct. 2011 May 6;7:11. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-7-11.

Effects of early life trauma are dependent on genetic predisposition: a rat study.

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Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, Observatory, 7925, South Africa.



Trauma experienced early in life increases the risk of developing a number of psychological and/or behavioural disorders. It is unclear, however, how genetic predisposition to a behavioural disorder, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), modifies the long-term effects of early life trauma. There is substantial evidence from family and twin studies for susceptibility to ADHD being inherited, implying a strong genetic component to the disorder. In the present study we used an inbred animal model of ADHD, the spontaneously hypertensive rat (SHR), to investigate the long-term consequences of early life trauma on emotional behaviour in individuals predisposed to developing ADHD-like behaviour.


We applied a rodent model of early life trauma, maternal separation, to SHR and Wistar-Kyoto rats (WKY), the normotensive control strain from which SHR were originally derived. The effects of maternal separation (removal of pups from dam for 3 h/day during the first 2 weeks of life) on anxiety-like behaviour (elevated-plus maze) and depressive-like behaviour (forced swim test) were assessed in prepubescent rats (postnatal day 28 and 31). Basal levels of plasma corticosterone were measured using radioimmunoassay.


The effect of maternal separation on SHR and WKY differed in a number of behavioural measures. Similar to its reported effect in other rat strains, maternal separation increased the anxiety-like behaviour of WKY (decreased open arm entries) but not SHR. Maternal separation increased the activity of SHR in the novel environment of the elevated plus-maze, while it decreased that of WKY. Overall, SHR showed a more active response in the elevated plus-maze and forced swim test than WKY, regardless of treatment, and were also found to have higher basal plasma corticosterone compared to WKY. Maternal separation increased basal levels of plasma corticosterone in SHR females only, possibly through adaptive mechanisms involved in maintaining their active response in behavioural tests. Basal plasma corticosterone was found to correlate positively with an active response to a novel environment and inescapable stress across all rats.


SHR are resilient to the anxiogenic effects of maternal separation, and develop a non-anxious, active response to a novel environment following chronic mild stress during the early stages of development. Our findings highlight the importance of genetic predisposition in determining the outcome of early life adversity. SHR may provide a model of early life trauma leading to the development of hyperactivity rather than anxiety and depression. Basal levels of corticosterone correlate with the behavioural response to early life trauma, and may therefore provide a useful marker for susceptibility to a certain behavioural temperament.

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