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Keywords:

  • epigenetic;
  • neuronal development;
  • prefrontal cortex;
  • prenatal stress;
  • rat

Abstract

Both chronic stress in adulthood and episodes of stress in the early postnatal period have been shown to interfere with neuronal development in limbic prefrontal cortical regions. The present study in rats showed for the first time that the development of layer II/III pyramidal neurons in the dorsal anterior cingulate (ACd) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is significantly affected in offspring of mothers exposed to stress during pregnancy. In prenatally stressed (PS) male rat pups the ACd and OFC showed significantly lower spine densities on the apical dendrite (ACd, −20%; OFC, −25%), on basal dendrites reduced spine densities where found only in the OFC (−20% in PS males). Moreover, in both cortical areas a significant reduction of dendritic length was observed in PS males compared to control offspring, which was confined to the apical dendrites (ACd, −30%, OFC, −26%). Sholl analysis revealed that these alterations were accompanied by a significantly reduced complexity of the dendritic trees in both cortical regions. PS females displayed reductions of dendritic spine densities in the ACd and OFC on both the basal (ACd, −21%; OFC, −20%) and apical dendrites (ACd, −21%; OFC, −21%), however, in contrast to the findings in PS males, no dendritic atrophy was detected in the PS females. These findings demonstrate that gestational stress leads to significant alterations of prefrontal neuronal structure in the offspring of the stressed mothers in a sex-specific manner.