Maternal Deprivation Potentiates Pituitary-Adrenal Stress Responses in Infant Rats

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In three experiments we examined the effect of maternal deprivation on the pituitary-adrenal response of 12-, 16- and 20-day-old rat pups to novelty stress. Infant rats were either deprived individually in heated incubators or left in the home nest with their mother and then tested for their corticosteroid response to 30-min exposure to a novel test arena (novelty-stress). In Experiment 1 we showed that the magnitude of the stress response was a positively accelerated function of the deprivation interval. Stress responses were not increased after 1 hour of deprivation, were modestly increased after 8 hours of deprivation, and were dramatically increased after 24 hours of deprivation. In Experiment 2 we asked whether potentiation of the stress response resulted from the maternal or the nutritive components of the deprivation procedure. Pups were tested under one of four treatment conditions formed by a 2 (Maternally Deprived vs. Nondeprived) × 2 (Nutritively Deprived vs. Nondeprived) factorial design. At 12 and 16 days of age, potentiation of the stress response was traced to the absence of maternal care and not nutrients. At 20 days of age, both maternal and nutritive deprivation contributed to the potentiated stress response. The results of Experiment 3 showed that this effect was mediated, at least in part, by increased adrenocortical sensitivity to ACTH, because the corticosteroid response to exogenous ACTH administration was also increased by maternal deprivation. These findings add to a growing body of literature that supports the concept of maternal regulation of infant physiology. They also support previous reports from this laboratory indicating that suppression of the pituitary-adrenal system is modulated by maternal variables during the preweaning period in the rat.

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