Effects of neonatal handling on social memory, social interaction, and number of oxytocin and vasopressin neurons in rats

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Early-life environmental events can induce profound long-lasting changes in several behavioral and neuroendocrine systems. The neonatal handling procedure, which involves repeated brief maternal separations followed by experimental manipulations, reduces stress responses and sexual behavior in adult rats. The purpose of this study was to analyze the effects of neonatal handling on social behaviors of male and female rats in adulthood, as manifest by the results of social memory and social interaction tests. The number of oxytocin (OT) and vasopressin (VP) neurons in the paraventricular (PVN) and supraoptic (SON) nuclei of hypothalamus were also analyzed. The results did not demonstrate impairment of social memory. Notwithstanding, handling did reduce social investigative interaction and increase aggressive behavior in males, but did not do so in females. Furthermore, in both males and females, handling was linked with reduced number of OT-neurons in the parvocellular region of the PVN, while no differences were detected in the magnocellular PVN or the SON. On the other hand, handled males exhibited increased number of VP-neurons in the magnocellular zone of the PVN. We may conclude that the repeated brief maternal separations can reduce affiliative social behavior in adult male rats. Moreover, the disruption of the mother-infant relationship caused by the handling procedure induced long-lasting morphological changes in critical neuroendocrine areas that are involved in social bonding in mammals.

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