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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Aug;37(8):1209-23. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.12.014. Epub 2012 Jan 11.

Personality traits in rats predict vulnerability and resilience to developing stress-induced depression-like behaviors, HPA axis hyper-reactivity and brain changes in pERK1/2 activity.

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Laboratory of Behavioral Genetics, Brain Mind Institute, School of Life Sciences, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland.


Emerging evidence indicates that certain behavioral traits, such as anxiety, are associated with the development of depression-like behaviors after exposure to chronic stress. However, single traits do not explain the wide variability in vulnerability to stress observed in outbred populations. We hypothesized that a combination of behavioral traits might provide a better characterization of an individual's vulnerability to prolonged stress. Here, we sought to determine whether the characterization of relevant behavioral traits in rats could aid in identifying individuals with different vulnerabilities to developing stress-induced depression-like behavioral alterations. We also investigated whether behavioral traits would be related to the development of alterations in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and in brain activity - as measured through phosphorylation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2)--in response to an acute stressor following either sub-chronic (2 weeks) or chronic (4 weeks) unpredictable stress (CUS). Sprague-Dawley rats were characterized using a battery of behavioral tasks, and three principal traits were identified: anxiety, exploration and activity. When combined, the first two traits were found to explain the variability in the stress responses. Our findings confirm the increased risk of animals with high anxiety developing certain depression-like behaviors (e.g., increased floating time in the forced swim test) when progressively exposed to stress. In contrast, the behavioral profile based on combined low anxiety and low exploration was resistant to alterations related to social behaviors, while the high anxiety and low exploration profile displayed a particularly vulnerable pattern of physiological and neurobiological responses after sub-chronic stress exposure. Our findings indicate important differences in animals' vulnerability and/or resilience to the effects of repeated stress, particularly during initial or intermediate levels of stress exposure, and they highlight that the behavioral inhibition profile of an animal provides a particular susceptibility to responding in a deleterious manner to stress.

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