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Effects of chronic maternal stress on hypothalamo–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) function and behavior: No reversal by environmental enrichment

Hormones and Behavior
DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2011.08.008
  • Prenatal Stress
  • Hypothalamo–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis
  • Locomotor Activity
  • Prepulse Inhibition
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Environmental Enrichment
  • Programming
  • Ecology
  • Geography


Abstract Maternal stress during pregnancy is linked to increased risk for impaired behavioral and emotional development and affective disorders in children. In animal models, acute periods of prenatal or postnatal stress have profound effects on HPA function and behavior in adult offspring. However, few animal studies have determined the impact of chronic exposure to stress throughout the perinatal period. The objective of this study was to determine the effects of chronic maternal stress (CMS) during the 2nd half of pregnancy and nursing on HPA function, locomotor behavior and prepulse inhibition in adult guinea pig offspring, as well as to determine whether environmental enrichment (EE) could reverse the effects of CMS. Guinea pigs were exposed to a random combination of variable stressors every other day over the 2nd half of gestation and from postnatal day (pnd) 1 until weaning (pnd25). Following weaning, offspring were housed in either standard conditions or EE. In both adult male and female offspring, there was no effect of CMS on basal or activated HPA function. CMS significantly increased locomotor activity in an open-field in male offspring, though no effect was observed in females. In female offspring, CMS disrupted PPI; however there was no effect on male PPI. EE had a number of effects on HPA function and behavior but in most cases these were independent of the influence of CMS. EE significantly elevated basal cortisol levels in male offspring at pnd70, whereas in female offspring, EE interacted with CMS to elevate basal cortisol levels from pnd35 to pnd70. In female offspring, EE decreased locomotor activity. In males, EE enhanced PPI; however in female offspring EE disrupted PPI. In conclusion, while CMS had minimal effects on HPA function, there were significant long-term sex-specific effects on behavior. EE did not reverse the effects observed as a result of CMS, but rather modified HPA function and behavior independently of CMS. Further, there was significant interaction of CMS with EE that resulted in elevation of basal HPA function in female offspring. These data, combined with previous studies from our laboratory, suggest that acute phases of maternal stress in late pregnancy may have greater long-term effects on HPA function and related behaviors than prolonged chronic maternal stress.

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