Early Life Stress Stimulates Hippocampal Reelin Gene Expression in a Sex-Specific Manner: Evidence for Corticosterone-Mediated Action

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Early life stress predisposes to the development of psychiatric disorders. In this context the hippocampal formation is of particular interest, because it is affected by stress on the structural and cognitive level. Since little is known how early life stress is translated on the molecular level, we mimicked early life stress in mouse models and analyzed the expression of the glycoprotein Reelin, a master molecule for development and differentiation of the hippocampus. From postnatal day 1 (P1) to P14, mouse pups were subjected to one of the following treatments: nonhandling (NH), handling (H), maternal separation (MS), and early deprivation (ED) followed by immediate (P15) or delayed (P70) real time RT-PCR analysis of reelin mRNA expression. We show that at P15, reelin mRNA levels were significantly increased in male H and ED groups when compared with the NH group. In contrast, no stress-induced alterations of reelin mRNA expression were found in female animals. This sex difference in stress-mediated stimulation of reelin expression was maintained into adulthood, since at P70 intergroup differences were still found in male, but not in female mice. On the cellular level, however, we did not find any significant differences in cell densities of Reelin-immunolabeled neurons between treatment groups or sexes, but an overall reduction of Reelin-expressing neurons in the adult hippocampus when compared to P15. To address the question whether corticosterone mediates the stress-induced up-regulation of reelin gene expression, we used age-matched hippocampal slice cultures derived from male and female mouse pups. Quantitative determination of mRNA levels revealed that corticosterone treatment significantly up-regulated reelin mRNA expression in male, but not in female hippocampi. Taken together, these results show a sex-specific regulation of reelin gene expression by early life experience, most likely mediated by corticosterone.

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