Individual vulnerability to substance abuse and affective disorders: role of early environmental influences

Neurotox Res. 2002 Jun;4(4):281-96. doi: 10.1080/1029842021000010866.


One of the most important questions raised by modern psychiatry and experimental psychopathology is the origin of mental diseases. More concisely, clinical and experimental neurosciences are increasingly concerned with the factors that render one individual more vulnerable than another to a given pathological outcome. Animal models are now available to understand the sources of individual differences for specific phenotypes prone to behavioral disadaptations. Over the last 10 years we have explored the consequences of environmental perinatal manipulations in the rat. We have shown that prenatal stress is at the origin of a wide range of physiological and behavioral aberrances such as alterations in the activity of the hormonal stress axis, increased vulnerability to drug of abuse, emotional liability, cognitive impairments and predisposition to pathological aging. Taken together, these abnormalities define a bio-behavioral syndrome. Furthermore, the cognitive disabilities observed in prenatally-stressed rats were recently related to an alteration of neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus, thus confirming the impact of early life events on brain morphology. A second model (handling model) has also been developed in which pups are briefly separated from their mothers during early postnatal life. In contrast with prenatally-stressed animals, handled rats exhibited a reduced emotion response when confronted with novel situations and were protected against age-induced impairments of both the hormonal stress axis and cognitive functions. Taken together, the results of these investigations show that the bio-behavioral phenotype that characterizes each individual is strongly linked to the nature and timing of perinatal experience. Furthermore, data collected in prenatally-stressed animals indicate that this model could be used profitably to understand the etiology and pathophysiology of affective disorders.