Maternal separation induces neuroinflammation and long-lasting emotional alterations in mice

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Early life experiences play a key role in brain function and behaviour. Adverse events during childhood are therefore a risk factor for psychiatric disease during adulthood, such as mood disorders. Maternal separation is a validated mouse model for maternal neglect, producing negative early life experiences that result in subsequent emotional alteration. Mood disorders have been found to be associated with neurochemical changes and neurotransmitter deficits such as reduced availability of monoamines in discrete brain areas. Emotional alterations like depression result in reduced serotonin availability and enhanced kynurenine metabolism through the action of indoleamine 2, 3-dioxygenase in response to neuroinflammatory factors. This mechanism involves regulation of the neurotransmitter system by neuroinflammatory agents, linking mood regulation to neuroinmunological reactions. In this context, the aim of this study was to investigate the effects of maternal separation with early weaning on emotional behaviour in mice. We investigated neuroinflammatory responses and the state of the tryptophan–kynurenine metabolic pathway in discrete brain areas following maternal separation. We show that adverse events during early life increase risk of long-lasting emotional alterations during adolescence and adulthood. These emotional alterations are particularly severe in females. Behavioural impairments were associated with microglia activation and disturbed tryptophan–kynurenine metabolism in brain areas related to emotional control. This finding supports the preeminent role of neuroinflammation in emotional disorders.

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