• ACTH;
  • corticosterone;
  • hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis;
  • maternal aggression


In order to study neuroendocrine and behavioural stress responses in female rats post partum we aimed to establish a relevant emotional stressor – the maternal defence test based on maternal aggression of a lactating resident towards a virgin or lactating intruder approaching the cage. Exposure to maternal defence significantly elevated corticotropin (ACTH) and corticosterone responses of the residents and of virgin or lactating intruders, with an attenuated response in lactating residents and lactating intruders. Exposure to maternal defence increased plasma oxytocin in virgin intruders only. The aggressive behaviour displayed by the residents was directly correlated with the amount of defensive behaviour of the intruder and independent of the intruder's reproductive state. However, the amount of maternal and explorative behaviours displayed by the lactating residents was significantly higher when exposed to a lactating, compared to a virgin, intruder. ACTH responses in lactating residents exposed to virgin intruders were significantly correlated to the amount of offensive (direct correlation) and maternal (inverse correlation) behaviours they displayed. Plasma prolactin concentrations, elevated in lactating compared to virgin rats under basal conditions, were found to be reduced in the lactating residents and intruders in response to exposure to the maternal defence test, whereas it was unchanged in virgin intruders. To test for the involvement of brain oxytocin in neuroendocrine and behavioural responses of the lactating residents an oxytocin receptor antagonist (0.1 µg/5 µL) was infused icv 10 min prior to testing. This treatment increased basal, but not stress-induced, ACTH, corticosterone and oxytocin secretion. Whereas parameters of aggressive behaviour were unchanged, the antagonist reduced signs of maternal behaviour during maternal defence. In summary, the maternal defence test has been characterized as a relevant emotional stressor for female rats which is useful for studying neuroendocrine and emotional responses in females, in particular in the context of reproductive adaptations.