Sex-specific effects of early life stress on social interaction and prefrontal cortex dendritic morphology in young rats

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Early life stress has been linked to depression, anxiety, and behavior disorders in adolescence and adulthood. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is implicated in stress-related psychopathology, is a target for stress hormones, and mediates social behavior. The present study investigated sex differences in early-life stress effects on juvenile social interaction and adolescent mPFC dendritic morphology in rats using a maternal separation (MS) paradigm. Half of the rat pups of each sex were separated from their mother for 4 h a day between postnatal days 2 and 21, while the other half remained with their mother in the animal facilities and were exposed to minimal handling. At postnatal day 25 (P25; juvenility), rats underwent a social interaction test with an age and sex matched conspecific. Distance from conspecific, approach and avoidance behaviors, nose-to-nose contacts, and general locomotion were measured. Rats were euthanized at postnatal day 40 (P40; adolescence), and randomly selected infralimbic pyramidal neurons were filled with Lucifer yellow using iontophoretic microinjections, imaged in 3D, and then analyzed for dendritic arborization, spine density, and spine morphology. Early-life stress increased the latency to make nose-to-nose contact at P25 in females but not males. At P40, early-life stress increased infralimbic apical dendritic branch number and length and decreased thin spine density in stressed female rats. These results indicate that MS during the postnatal period influenced juvenile social behavior and mPFC dendritic arborization in a sex-specific manner.

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