Maternal care interacts with prenatal stress in altering sexual dimorphism in male rats

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The present study analyzes the interaction between prenatal stress and mother's behavior on brain, hormonal, and behavioral development of male offspring in rats. It extends to males our previous findings, in females, that maternal care can alter behavioral dimorphism that becomes evident in the neonates when they mature. Experiment 1 compares the maternal behavior of foster mothers toward cross-fostered pups versus mothers rearing their own litters. Experiment 2 ascertains the induced “maternal” behavior of the male pups, derived from Experiment 1 when they reached maturity. The most striking effect was that the males non-exposed to the stress as fetuses and raised by stressed foster mothers showed the highest levels of “maternal” behavior of all the groups (i.e., induction of maternal behavior and retrieving behavior), not differing from the control, unstressed, female groups. Furthermore, those males showed significantly fewer olfactory bulb mitral cells than the control males that were non-stressed as fetuses and raised by their own non-stressed mothers. They also presented the lowest levels of plasma testosterone of all the male groups.

The present findings provide evidence that prenatal environmental stress can “demasculinize” the behavior, brain anatomy and hormone secretion in the male fetuses expressed when they reach maturity. Moreover, the nature of the maternal care received by neonates can affect the behavior and physiology that they express at maturity.

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