Behavioural and Neuroendocrine Adaptations to Repeated Stress during Puberty in Male Golden Hamsters

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In adult animals, the consequences of stress are often severe and long lasting. Repeated subjugation in adult male golden hamsters inhibits aggression and increases submissive and avoidant behaviours. By contrast, subjugation during puberty enhances offensive aggression. The goals of this study were to characterize behavioural and neuroendocrine responses of naïve and repeatedly subjugated juveniles to social defeat and to assess potential recovery from social stress. From the onset of puberty on postnatal day 28 (P28) to mid puberty (P42), animals were either socially subjugated or placed in a clean and empty cage for 20 min daily. The subjugated and control groups were further divided into subgroups and sacrificed under basal conditions or after social defeat on P28, P35 (early puberty), P45 (mid puberty) and P70 (early adulthood). On P35 and P45, repeatedly subjugated juveniles showed a complete inhibition of olfactory investigation (i.e. risk assessment) towards aggressive adults. Repeatedly subjugated also animals had lower postdefeat cortisol levels than controls on P45. Interestingly, basal cortisol levels increased gradually during puberty but did not differ between treatment groups at any point. Repeated subjugation was also associated with increased tyrosine hydroxylase immunoreactivity (ir-TH) within the extended medial amygdala. After a 4-week recovery period, none of these variables differed between subjugated and control groups. In an additional experiment, subjugated adults also had increased ir-TH in the medial extended amygdala, suggesting that these neurones are particularly responsive to social stress. In conclusion, puberty may be a developmental period characterized by behavioural and neuroendocrine plasticity in stress responsiveness. Furthermore, peri-pubertal changes in stress hormones may explain why juvenile hamsters are more resilient to social stress than adults.

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