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Eur J Neurosci. 2012 Jan;35(1):135-45. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.2011.07921.x. Epub 2011 Dec 15.

Early postnatal stress alters extracellular signal-regulated kinase signaling in the corticolimbic system modulating emotional circuitry in adult rats.

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Department of Pharmacology, School of Pharmaceutical Science, Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, Ishikari-Tobetsu, Hokkaida 061-0293, Japan.


The present study elucidated whether early life stress alters the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway that underlies fear retrieval and fear extinction based on a contextual fear conditioning paradigm, using a juvenile stress model. Levels of phospho-ERK (pERK), the active form of ERK, increased after fear retrieval in the hippocampal CA1 region but not in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). ERK activation in the CA1 following fear retrieval was not observed in adult rats who received aversive footshock (FS) stimuli during the second postnatal period (2wFS), which exhibited low levels of freezing. In fear extinction, pERK levels in the CA1 were increased by repeated extinction trials, but they were not altered after extinction retrieval. In contrast, pERK levels in the mPFC did not change during extinction training, but were enhanced after extinction retrieval. These findings were compatible in part with electrophysiological data showing that synaptic transmission in the CA1 field and mPFC was enhanced during extinction training and extinction retrieval, respectively. ERK activation in the CA1 and mPFC associated with extinction processes did not occur in rats that received FS stimuli during the third postnatal period (3wFS), which exhibited sustained freezing behavior. The repressed ERK signaling and extinction deficit observed in the 3wFS group were ameliorated by treatment with the partial N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor agonist D-cycloserine. These findings suggest that early postnatal stress induced the downregulation of ERK signaling in distinct brain regions through region-specific regulation, which may lead to increased behavioral abnormalities or emotional vulnerabilities in adulthood.

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