Predation threat exerts specific effects on rat maternal behaviour and anxiety-related behaviour of male and female offspring

Physiol Behav. 2009 Mar 23;96(4-5):693-702. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2009.01.001. Epub 2009 Jan 13.


Differences in the rate of maternal behaviours received by rodent offspring are associated with differential programming of molecular and behavioural components of anxiety and stress-related functions. To determine the degree to which maternal behaviours are sensitive to environmental conditions, Long-Evans rat dams were exposed to the odour of a predator (cat) at two different time points during the first week postpartum. Exposure on the day of birth (DOB), but not the third day following birth, increased levels of maternal care in predator-exposed dams relative to dams exposed to a control condition across the first 5 days post-partum. As adults, female offspring of dams exposed on DOB exhibited a less-anxious phenotype in a novel open-field, spending more time in the center and less time displaying thigmotaxis. In contrast, under the same conditions, male offspring showed the opposite behavioural response, consistent with an increasingly anxious phenotype. Results from a subsequent stressor test (response to a predator odour) were consistent with the notion that the rearing effects were specific to anxiety-related behaviours in offspring. Accordingly, we showed that rearing conditions did not affect GR mRNA or NGFI-A expression in the hippocampus of offspring or cross-fostered offspring. The dissociation between stress and anxiety, as well as the sex-specific alterations in behaviour, may reflect the specificity inherent to neural programming in the face of naturalistic early life conditions.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / psychology
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Critical Period, Psychological*
  • Early Growth Response Protein 1 / genetics
  • Early Growth Response Protein 1 / metabolism
  • Exploratory Behavior
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / growth & development
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • Imprinting, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology*
  • Odorants
  • Olfactory Perception
  • Predatory Behavior
  • RNA, Messenger / analysis
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / genetics
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / metabolism
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Environment
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*


  • Early Growth Response Protein 1
  • Egr1 protein, rat
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid