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Keywords:

  • c-Fos;
  • early life experience;
  • ether;
  • restraint;
  • stress

Abstract

Postnatal handling, as a crucial early life experience, plays an essential role in the development of hypothalamo-pituitary–adrenal axis responses to stress. The impact of postnatal handling on the reactivity of stress-related neuronal circuitries was investigated in animals that were handled for the first 21 days of life and as adults they were exposed to physical (ether) or emotional (restraint) challenge. To assess neuronal activation we relied on the induction of immediate-early gene product c-Fos and analysed its spatial and temporal distribution at various time intervals after stress. Ether and restraint commonly activated parvocellular neurons in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus, and resulted in activation of brain areas providing stress-related information to the hypothalamic effector neurons and/or in regions governing autonomic and behavioural responses to stress. Beyond these areas, the strength and timing of c-Fos induction showed stressor specificity in olfactory and septal region, basal ganglia, hypothalamus, hippocampal formation, amygdala and brainstem. Handled rats displayed a lower number of c-Fos-positive cell nuclei and weaker staining intensity than non-handled controls in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus, bed nucleus of stria terminalis, central nucleus of amygdala, hippocampus, piriform cortex and posterior division of the cingulum. Significant differences were revealed in timing of c-Fos induction as a function of stressor and early life experience. Together, these data provide functional anatomical evidence that environmental enrichment in the early postnatal period attenuates the reactivity of stress-related neuronal circuitries in the adult rat brain.