Maternal experience inhibits the production of immature neurons in the hippocampus during the postpartum period through elevations in adrenal steroids

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Abstract

Motherhood is accompanied by alterations in numerous nonreproductive behaviors, including learning and memory, as well as anxiety and stress regulation. These functions have been linked to adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus, but the effect of maternal experience on this brain region has not been completely explored. To determine whether the production of new hippocampal granule cells is altered during the postpartum period, we examined the number of proliferating cells and their progeny in the dentate gyrus of primiparous female rats at various time points during the postpartum period while they were caring for their offspring, as well as after weaning. Additionally, we investigated whether cell proliferation in the postpartum female is affected by the presence of offspring and nursing-induced increases in glucocorticoids. Analysis of the number of BrdU-labeled cells revealed that cell proliferation in the dentate gyrus was suppressed in lactating postpartum females until the time of weaning. This effect was temporary; a difference was detectable at 1 week after BrdU-labeling, when the majority of cells expressed a marker of immature and mature granule neurons (TuJ1) but not at 2 weeks, when most cells expressed a marker of mature neurons (NeuN). The decrease in cell proliferation was dependent on elevated basal glucocorticoid levels associated with lactation; removal of nursing pups reduced basal corticosterone levels and prevented the decrease in the number of BrdU-labeled cells. Moreover, preventing increased basal corticosterone levels by means of adrenalectomy and low-dose corticosterone replacement eliminated the reduction in cell proliferation. These findings indicate that offspring interactions inhibit adult neurogenesis through changes in adrenal steroids, and further suggest a potential mechanism for alterations in hippocampal function during the postpartum period. © 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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