Activation of cortical and striatal regions during the expression of a naturalistic compulsive-like behavior in the rabbit

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Nest building behavior in the pregnant rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) can serve as a model for compulsions in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Previous work showed that the “straw carrying” phase of nest building (during which the rabbit repeatedly collects straw in its mouth, carries it into the nest box and deposits it there, and then returns to collect more) is associated with increased c-FOS expression (a marker of neuronal activity) in the orbitofrontal, anterior cingulate, and piriform cortices. In the present study, we quantified c-FOS expression in the caudate and putamen, as well as in the primary motor, somatosensory, and prefrontal cortices of: (1) pregnant rabbits given straw (PREG+STRAW); pregnant rabbits not given straw (PREG); (3) estrous rabbits given straw (ESTROUS+STRAW); and (4) estrous rabbits not given straw (ESTROUS). We found that straw carrying was associated with increased c-FOS expression in the dorsal putamen, ventral caudate, primary motor cortex, and somatosensory cortex. Additionally, a correlational analysis of PREG+STRAW animals revealed that these regions, along with the premotor and prelimbic cortices, were significantly intercorrelated with respect to c-FOS expression, suggesting their “coactivation” during repetitive straw carrying. By contrast, behavioral interactions of non-pregnant (ESTROUS) rabbits with straw (e.g., sniffing, nibbling it) were associated with a distinct pattern of c-FOS expression that included the medial and ventral putamen. c-FOS expression in PREG+STRAW rabbits is similar to patterns of regional brain activity in OCD patients exposed to obsession-provoking stimuli, as well as to those observed in healthy human mothers responding to infant-associated stimuli.

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