The present study investigated the effects of post-weaning social isolation (SI) on behavioural and neuroendocrine reactivity to stress of male and female rats. Innate aspects of fear and anxiety were assessed in the open field and elevated plus maze tests. Spontaneous startle reflex and conditioned fear response were further investigated. The neuroendocrine response of isolates was examined by measuring basal and stress release of ACTH and corticosterone and by evaluating the mRNA expression of mineralocorticoid (MR) and glucocorticoid (GR) receptors using in situ hybridization. Locomotor activity in the open field was not modified by chronic SI. In males, but not females, SI produced an anxiogenic profile in the elevated plus maze. Male isolates showed a trend towards increased startle reflex amplitude relative to socially-reared controls. Moreover, SI in males produced alterations of the HPA axis functioning as reflected by higher basal levels of ACTH, and enhanced release of ACTH and corticosterone following stress. In contrast, startle response or HPA axis functioning were not altered in female isolates. Social isolates from both genders showed reduced contextual fear-conditioning. Finally, the mRNA expression of MR and GR was not modified by SI. The results of the present study suggest that chronic SI increases emotional reactivity to stress and produces a hyperfunction of the HPA axis in adult rats, particularly in males.
Copyright 2003 Elsevier B.V.