Running Wheel Exercise Reduces Renewal of Extinguished Instrumental Behavior and Alters Medial Prefrontal Cortex Neurons in Adolescent, But Not Adult, Rats

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Physical exercise in rodents has repeatedly been shown to trigger positive effects on brain function, including increased neurotrophic factors and improved learning and memory. However, most of this work has focused on the adult hippocampus and hippocampal-dependent behavior. Here we examined the effect of running wheel exercise in adult and adolescent male rats on ABA renewal of extinguished instrumental conditioning, in which acquisition occurs in Context A, extinction in Context B, and renewal testing occurs back in Context A. In the first experiment, rats were given unlocked (exercise) or locked (no exercise) running wheel access in their home cages beginning at postnatal Day 30 (adolescent) or postnatal Day 56 (adult). Rats underwent lever-press acquisition in Context A and extinction in Context B. ABA renewal testing took place 2 weeks after the start of running wheel exposure. Nonexercising adolescent rats showed greater ABA renewal than nonexercising adult rats and exercise reduced ABA renewal in adolescents but not adults. ABA renewal depends on medial prefrontal cortex function. In a second experiment, we compared adolescent and adult apical dendrite branch length, branch number, and spine density of medial prefrontal cortex pyramidal neurons after 2 weeks of unlocked or locked running wheel access. The results revealed a higher density of dendritic spines and a lower dendritic branch length in adolescent exercisers than adolescent nonexercisers. Adult exercisers and nonexercisers did not differ. Collectively, these experiments suggest that exercise may have particularly strong effects on adolescent medial prefrontal cortex function and structure.

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