Maternal deprivation effects on brain plasticity and recognition memory in adolescent male and female rats
Data from both human and animal studies suggest that exposure to stressful life events at neonatal stages may increase the risk of psychopathology at adulthood. In particular, early maternal deprivation, 24 h at postnatal day (pnd) 9, has been associated with persistent neurobehavioural changes similar to those present in developmental psychopathologies such as depression and schizophrenic-related disorders. Most neuropsychiatric disorders first appear during adolescence, however, the effects of MD on adolescent animals' brain and behaviour have been scarcely explored. In the present study, we aimed to investigate the emotional and cognitive consequences of MD in adolescent male and female rats, as well as possible underlying neurobiological mechanisms within frontal cortex and hippocampus. Animals were exposed to a battery of behavioural tasks, from pnd 35 to 42, to evaluate cognitive [spontaneous alternation task (SAT) and novel object test (NOT)] and anxiety-related responses [elevated plus maze (EPM)] during adolescence. Changes in neuronal and glial cells, alterations in synaptic plasticity as well as modifications in cannabinoid receptor expression were investigated in a parallel group of control and adolescent (pnd 40) male and female animals. Notably, MD induced a significant impairment in recognition memory exclusively among females. A generalized decrease in NeuN expression was found in MD animals, together with an increase in hippocampal glial fibrillar acidic protein (GFAP) expression exclusively among MD adolescent males. In addition, MD induced in the frontal cortex and hippocampus of male and female adolescent rats a significant reduction in brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and postsynaptic density (PSD95) levels, together with a decrease in synaptophysin in frontal cortex and neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM) in hippocampus. MD induced, in animals of both sexes, a significant reduction in CB1R expression, but an increase in CB2R that was statistically significant only for the frontal cortex. Taken together, these results indicate that adolescent females are more vulnerable than males to the cognitive deficits derived from MD despite the changes in neural cells, cannabinoid receptors, as well as the reduction in neural plasticity seem to be similar in both sexes. Further investigation is needed to understand the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the sexual dimorphisms associated to the MD effects, and thus, for a better understanding of the specific sex-dependent vulnerabilities to early life stress. This article is part of the Special Issue entitled 'Neurodevelopmental Disorders'.