Paper or Plastic? Exploring the Effects of Natural Enrichment on Behavioural and Neuroendocrine Responses in Long-Evans Rats

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Enriched environments are beneficial to neurobiological development; specifically, rodents exposed to complex, rather than standard laboratory, environments exhibit evidence of neuroplasticity and enhanced cognitive performance. In the present study, the nature of elements placed in the complex environment was investigated. Accordingly, rats (n = 8 per group) were housed either in a natural environment characterised by stimuli such as dirt and rocks, an artificial environment characterised by plastic toys and synthetic nesting materials, a natural/artificial environment characterised by a combination of artificial and natural stimuli or a laboratory standard environment characterised by no enrichment stimuli. Following exposure to emotional and cognitive behavioural tasks, including a cricket hunting task, a novel object preference task and a forced swim task, brains were processed for glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP)-, neuronal nuclei (NeuN)- and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) immunoreactivity. Baseline and stress foecal samples were collected to assess corticosterone (CORT) and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Natural environment animals exhibited shorter diving latencies and increased diving frequencies in the second forced swimming task, along with higher DHEA/CORT ratios, and higher GFAP immunoreactivity in the hippocampus. The type of environmental enrichment did not influence levels of BDNF immunoreactivity in the CA1, CA3 and dentate gyrus of the hippocampus; however, natural environment animals exhibited higher levels of NeuN immunoreactivity in the retrosplenial cortex, an area involved in spatial memory and other cognitive functions. These results suggest that, in addition to enhancing behavioural and endocrinological variables associated with resilience, exposure to natural stimuli might alter plasticity in brain areas associated with cortical processing and learning.

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