Prenatal Ethanol Exposure Differentially Alters Behavior in Males and Females on the Elevated Plus Maze

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Rodents prenatally exposed to ethanol demonstrate hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and behavioral hyperactivity to a variety of stressful situations. The present study examined both behavioral and corticosterone (CORT) responses to the elevated plus maze (+-maze), an anxiety- or fear-provoking task. Sprague-Dawley male and female offspring from fetal ethanol-exposed (E), pair-fed (PF), and ad libitum-fed control (C) groups were tested at 60 to 90 days of age. In experiment 1, behavior was measured in animals exposed to the +-maze for 5 min on two consecutive days; 2 weeks later, both behavioral and CORT responses were measured in animals confined to the open and closed arms of the maze for 20 min. In experiment 2, animals were placed in an open field (OF) for 5 min before a single 5-min exposure to the +-maze. Factor analysis of the scored behaviors from the two experiments indicated two main factors, designated "exploration" and "fear." E males and females both exhibited higher levels of exploratory behaviors when placed directly on the +-maze from their homecages without prior exposure to the OF, compared with C males and females. In addition, when confined to the closed arms of the +-maze, E males and females demonstrated higher levels of activity, compared with C males and females. After OF exposure, however, both E males and females demonstrated lower levels of exploratory behaviors than C males and females, and E females also had increased CORT levels, compared with PF and C females. Interestingly, E females, but not E males, showed an increase in fear-related behaviors on the +-maze, compared with controls, regardless of prior OF exposure. These data demonstrate that prenatal ethanol exposure may differentially affect both behavioral and hormonal responses of males and females in an aversive behavioral task and suggest that there may be a sex difference in the sensitivity of the mechanism(s) underlying these responses.

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