Acute Early-Life Stress Results in Premature Emergence of Adult-Like Fear Retention and Extinction Relapse in Infant Rats

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Recent studies have shown that chronic early life stress results in precocious expression of the adult-like phenotype of fear retention and inhibition. However, it is unknown whether the experience of acute early trauma has the same effects as exposure to chronic early stress. In the present study, a 24-hr period of maternal deprivation on postnatal day (P) 9 was used as an acute early life stressor. In infancy (P16-17), maternally deprived and standard-reared rats were conditioned to fear a noise paired with shock. In Experiments 1 and 2, fear to the noise was then extinguished before rats were tested for context-mediated fear renewal or stress-induced fear reinstatement. In Experiments 3a and 3b, conditioned rats were tested for fear retention 1, 7, or 14 days after training. Whereas standard-reared infants exhibited relapse-resistant extinction and infantile amnesia (i.e., behaviors typical of their age), maternally deprived infants exhibited the renewal and reinstatement effects (i.e., relapse-prone extinction) and showed good retention of fear over the 7- and 14-day intervals (i.e., infantile amnesia was reduced). In other words, similar to rats exposed to chronic early life stress, rats exposed to acute early stress expressed an adult-like profile of fear retention and inhibition during infancy. These findings suggest that similar mechanisms might be involved in the effects of acute and chronic stress on emotional development, and may have implications for our understanding and treatment of emotional disorders associated with early adversity.

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