Social Instability in Adolescence Alters the Central and Peripheral Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Responses to a Repeated Homotypic Stressor in Male and Female Rats

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There has been little research on effects of chronic stressors on neuroendocrine function in adolescence despite increasing evidence of enduring effects of stressors during this period on behaviour in adulthood. We previously reported that social stress (SS: daily 1 h isolation and new cage partner for 16 days) in adolescence altered locomotor responses to psychostimulants in adulthood. Here, we investigated neuroendocrine responses over the duration of the procedure that may underlie the enduring effects of SS. SS rats were compared to rats undergoing daily isolation only (ISO) and controls (CTL) to determine responses to acute and repeated isolation with and without social instability. At 30 days of age (first isolation), higher plasma corticosterone and corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) mRNA expression in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus and in the central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA) were found in males caged with a new partner (SS) after isolation than those returned to their original partner (ISO). On day 45, SS males and females showed less habituation (higher bioactive levels of corticosterone based on plasma corticosterone and corticosteroid binding globulin levels) to the 16th episode of isolation than did ISO. SS and ISO had higher baseline expression of CRH mRNA in the PVN on day 45 than did CTL, and only CTL had increased levels after isolation. CRH mRNA expression in the CeA increased to a first isolation in CTL and to a 16th isolation in SS but not in ISO males. Modest differences in social interactions were observed between SS and ISO when returned to their cages after isolation. The results suggest that mild social stressors in adolescence impede neuroendocrine adaptation to homotypic stressors. The resultant increase in exposure to glucocorticoids over adolescence may alter ongoing brain development and increase vulnerability to psychopathology.

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