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Keywords:

  • early stress;
  • chronic stress;
  • hippocampus;
  • structural remodeling;
  • anxiety

Abstract

Early life stress produces long-term alterations in cognition, emotionality, and stress responsiveness. The stress-sensitive hippocampal formation plays a role in producing many of these alterations. We report that adult male rats exposed to early life stress, in the form of maternal separation (MS), exhibit baseline impairment of hippocampal dependent memory and following three weeks of chronic restraint stress (CRS) exhibit heightened anxiety-like behavior and alterations in the morphology of hippocampal CA3 pyramidal neurons. Specifically, as measured by the object placement task, MS offspring demonstrated impaired spatial memory compared with nonmaternally separated rats (NMS). Moreover, compared with NMS rats, subsequent CRS exposure of MS rats increased novelty-induced corticosterone secretion and potentiated anxiety-like behavior as measured by the elevated plus maze. Further, CRS exposed MS rats did not exhibit shortening of apical dendritic length compared with nonstressed MS rats, whereas CRS exposed NMS rats did show significant dendritic shrinkage compared with nonstressed NMS rats. The blunted CRS-induced remodeling of apical dendritic length in MS rats is likely due to a baseline deficiency in dendritic length; MS rats exhibit a trend towards shorter apical dendrites in comparison to NMS rats. CRS exposure in both MS and NMS rats, however, induced a reduction in apical dendritic branching. Finally, there was a significant correlation between apical dendritic length and novelty-induced corticosterone level, while there was not a significant correlation with anxiety-like behavior. Overall, our results suggest preserved but blunted hippocampal structural plasticity in MS rats that is not sufficient to compensate for hippocampal dysfunction and hypersensitivity to CRS. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., Inc.