The dynamics of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis during maternal deprivation

Publication Type:

Journal Article


J Neuroendocrinol, Volume 16, Number 1, p.52-57 (2004)


0953-8194 (Print)0953-81

DOI Name (links to online publication)



Adrenocorticotropic Hormone/*blood; Analysis of Variance; Animals; Biological Markers/blood; Corticosterone/*blood; Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone/genetics/metabolism; Female; Hippocampus/metabolism; Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System/*physiology; Male; *Mat


A close contact between the dam and the litter is essential for the normal development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in rats and mice. Maternal signals, as licking and feeding, have been shown to sustain the HPA axis of the pups in a hypo-responsive state. Disruption of this mother-pup interaction by 24 h of maternal deprivation activates the otherwise quiescent stress system of the neonates, resulting in an enhanced adrenal sensitivity to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and a decreased expression of central HPA markers, such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). However, the dynamics of these central and peripheral changes over the 24h period are largely unknown. In this study, we examined the time course of some of the central and peripheral indices of HPA activity during 24 h of maternal deprivation. We measured corticosterone and ACTH in the blood as well as CRH, mineralocorticoid and glucocorticoid receptor expression in the brain. Our results demonstrate that each of the components of the HPA axis responds to maternal deprivation at different time points following removal of the mother and with a very specific time course. The main activation of the HPA axis occurred between 4 h and 8 h of maternal absence. By contrast, during the second half of the deprivation period, negativefeedback mechanisms restrained the further increase in ACTH and corticosterone release. We conclude that maternal deprivation triggers a cascade of sequential changes at the various levels of the stress system, and that measuring only one aspect of the system at one time point does not accurately reflect the dynamic alterations of the HPA axis.