Early experience of a novel-environment in isolation primes a fearful phenotype characterized by persistent amygdala activation

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 39, p.39-57 (2014)


1873-3360 (Electronic)03

DOI Name (links to online publication)



Prolonged maternal separation (MS) activates the neonate's hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis causing elevated basal and stress-induced corticosterone levels that may initiate amygdala-dependent fear learning. Here we test the hypothesis that the adult fearful phenotype is programmed by the pup's stressful experience during prolonged MS rather than by prolonged maternal absence per se. For this purpose, Wistar rat pups were exposed, on postnatal-day (pnd) 3, to: (i) repeated-MS in home-environment (HOME-SEP), 8h-MS daily for three days with the pups remaining together in the home-cage; (ii) repeated-MS in a novel-environment (NOVEL-SEP), with the same separation procedure, but now the pups were individually housed in a novel-environment during the 8h dam's absence; (iii) repeated handling, which consisted of daily brief (15min instead of 8h) MS in the home-altogether or in a novel-environment individually (HOME-HAN and NOVEL-HAN, respectively); (iv) no-separation/no-handling (NON-SEP/NON-HAN) control condition, in which pups were left undisturbed in their home-cage. Compared to HOME-SEP rats, the NOVEL-SEP rats showed one day after the last MS enhanced stress-induced amygdala c-Fos expression and ACTH-release, despite of reduced adrenal corticosterone secretion. The higher amygdala c-Fos expression, ACTH-release and reduced corticosterone output observed postnatally, persisted into adulthood of the NOVEL-SEP animals. Behaviorally, NOVEL-SEP juvenile rats displayed deficits in social play, had intact spatial memory in the peri-pubertal period and showed more contextual fear memory compared to HOME-SEP in adulthood. Finally, NOVEL-HAN, compared to HOME-HAN, displayed increased stress-induced corticosterone output, no deficits in social play and reduced contextual fear. In conclusion, programming of an adult fearful phenotype linked to amygdala priming develops if pups are repeatedly isolated from peers in a novel-environment, while away from the dam for a prolonged period of time.