Exposure to stress during development and the importance of timing: An animal model of early life adversity
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Clinical and preclinical research both indicate that early life adversities alter sensitivity to stress well into adulthood. Although clinical research identifies infancy, childhood, and adolescence as periods of heightened vulnerability, the majority of preclinical research experiments have examined the enduring impact of stressors delivered either prenatally or prior to weaning. It was recently shown that exposing rats to intermittent stressors across the childhood/ adolescent period (PD 21-51) increased their behavioural and endocrine sensitivity to stress in adulthood. The purpose of the current project was to determine whether specific developmental periods are differentially sensitive to the lasting effects of intermittent stress. Male and female Long-Evans rats were exposed to three stressors (foot shock, elevated platform exposure, and cold water emersion) two times each, randomly over a twelve day period (childhood: PD 22-33 vs. adolescence: PD 35-46). Age-matched controls were briefly handled on each of the stressor application days. After completion of the stress exposure period, rats were left undisturbed for 27 days and behavioural testing commenced in adulthood. Intermittent physical stress exposure during the childhood period increased anxiety-like behaviours in adulthood, as indexed by the Elevated-Plus Maze (EPM) and Shock Probe Burying Test (SPBT). This also increased depression-like behaviour in adult male rats and decreased depression-like behaviour in adult female rats, as indexed by the Forced Swim Test (FST). Intermittent physical stress exposure in the adolescent period increased open-arm activity, increased burying behaviour and increased immobility in the forced swim test, in both male and female rats. Stress during either developmental period, failed to alter corticosterone (CORT) reactivity to restraint stress in adulthood. Thus, it appears that the long lasting behavioural impact of early-life adversity can vary, according to the developmental period the stressors are experienced in, but this is further modified by sex and the type of test used to evaluate adult behaviour.