Exposure to Repetitive Versus Varied Stress during Prenatal Development Generates Two Distinct Anxiogenic and Neuroendocrine Profiles in Adulthood

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Early life experiences can shape brain function and behavior in adulthood. The present study sought to elucidate the effects of repetitive, predictable vs. varied, unpredictable prenatal stress on sexually dichotomous neuroendocrine and anxiety-related behavioral responses in adult offspring. Rat dams were exposed repeatedly during the last week of pregnancy to no stress, only restraint stress [prenatal stress (PS)-restraint], or a randomized sequence of varied stressors (PS-random), and several behavioral and endocrine measures were assessed in adult male and female offspring. Repeated exposure to the same stressor (restraint) generated the most robust changes, including increased anxiety-related behaviors (both passive, measured on the elevated plus maze, and active, measured using defensive burying tests), a delayed and prolonged hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response to stress in female offspring. Conversely, PS-restraint males showed no changes in anxiety-like behavior and had elevated basal ACTH and a blunted HPA response to stress; consistent with attenuated HPA responsivity was an increase in glucocorticoid receptor immunoreactivity in the hippocampus, suggesting increased negative feedback on the HPA axis in these animals. Prenatal exposure to a varied, unpredictable pattern of stressors did not have as much effect on HPA function, with most neuroendocrine measures residing intermediate to PS-restraint and control animals within each sex. Gonadal steroids were altered independent of the type of prenatal stress, but changes were measurable only in males (lower testosterone). The present data exemplify the differential sensitivity of the developing nervous and endocrine systems to stress, depending on not only gender but also the nature of the stressful experience endured by the mother during pregnancy.

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