Prepubertal stress and hippocampal function: Sex-specific effects

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The chances of developing psychiatric disorders in adulthood are increased when stress is experienced early in life. In particular, stress experienced in the childhood or ‘prepubertal’ phase is associated with the later development of disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychosis. Relatively little is known about the biological basis of this effect, but one hypothesis is that prepubertal stress produces long-lasting changes in brain development, particularly in stress sensitive regions such as the hippocampus, leaving an individual vulnerable to disorders in adulthood. In this study, we used an animal model of prepubertal stress to investigate the hypothesis that prepubertal stress induces alterations in hippocampal function in adulthood. Male and female rats were exposed to a brief, variable prepubertal stress protocol (postnatal days 25–27), and their performance in two distinct hippocampal-dependent tasks (contextual fear and spatial navigation) was compared with controls in adulthood. Prepubertal stress significantly impaired contextual fear responses in males and enhanced performance in spatial navigation in females. These results demonstrate that exposure to a brief period of stress in the prepubertal phase alters hippocampal-dependent behaviors in adulthood in a sex-specific manner.

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