Prenatal Social Stress in the Rat Programmes Neuroendocrine and Behavioural Responses to Stress in the Adult Offspring: Sex-Specific Effects

P. J. Brunton, J. A. Russell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Stress exposure during pregnancy can 'programme' adult behaviour and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis stress responsiveness. In the present study, we utilised an ethologically relevant social stressor to model the type of stress that pregnant women may experience. We investigated the effects of social defeat by a resident lactating rat over 5 days during the last week of pregnancy on the pregnant intruder rat HPA axis, and on HPA responsivity to stress and anxiety-related behaviour in the adult offspring of the socially-defeated intruder rats. HPA axis responses after social defeat were attenuated in the pregnant rats compared to virgin females. In the adult offspring, systemic interleukin (IL)-1 beta or restraint increased adrenocorticotrophic hormone and corticosterone secretion in male and female control rats; however, in prenatally stressed (PNS) offspring, HPA responses were greatly enhanced and peak hormone responses to IL-1 beta were greater in females versus males. Male PNS rats displayed increased anxiety behaviour on the elevated plus maze; however, despite marked changes in anxiety behaviour across the oestrous cycle, there were no differences between female control and PNS rats. Investigation of possible mechanisms showed mineralocorticoid mRNA levels were reduced in the hippocampus of male and female PNS offspring, whereas glucocorticoid receptor mRNA expression was modestly reduced in the CA2 hippocampal subfield in female PNS rats only. Corticotropin-releasing hormone mRNA and glucocorticoid receptor mRNA expression in the central amygdala was greater in PNS males and females compared to controls. The data obtained in the present study indicate that prenatal social stress differentially programmes anxiety behaviour and HPA axis responses to stress in male and female offspring. Attenuated glucocorticoid feedback mechanisms in the limbic system may underlie HPA axis hyper-reactivity to stress in PNS offspring.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)258-271
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Neuroendocrinology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2010

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • anxiety
  • interleukin-1β
  • glucocorticoid receptor
  • HPA axis
  • mineralocorticoid receptor
  • pregnancy


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