Maternal care determines rapid effects of stress mediators on synaptic plasticity in adult rat hippocampal dentate gyrus

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2009 Oct;92(3):292-300. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2009.03.004. Epub 2009 Mar 16.


Maternal care in the rat influences hippocampal development, synaptic plasticity and cognition. Previous studies, however, have examined animals under minimally stressful conditions. Here we tested the hypothesis that maternal care influences hippocampal function differently when this structure is exposed to corticosteroid and noradrenergic hormones, which are elevated during the early phase of a stress response. In the adult male offspring of Long-Evans dams characterised as high or low in maternal care (high LG and low LG) we (1) examined basal dendritic morphology in the dentate gyrus by Golgi staining; (2) investigated rapid modulation of in vitro long term-potentiation (LTP) in the dentate gyrus by glucocorticoid and beta-adrenergic stimulation; (3) examined hippocampal and amygdala-dependent learning under stress using contextual and cued fear conditioning. We found differences in hippocampal dentate gyrus morphology in adult offspring of high and low LG mothers, with less dendritic complexity in low LG offspring. Under basal conditions LTP was lower in slices from low compared with high LG offspring. Hippocampal LTP was rapidly increased by either corticosterone (100 nM) or isoproterenol (1.0 microM) in low LG offspring, suggesting improved dentate plasticity during stress. This was mirrored in hippocampal but not amygdala-dependent learning, as low LG offspring showed enhanced contextual but not cued fear conditioning. We suggest that decreased pup LG during postnatal life may be adaptive in high-threat environments, potentially enhancing hippocampal function in the offspring under conditions of adversity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Classical / drug effects
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Corticosterone / pharmacology
  • Cues
  • Dendrites / drug effects
  • Dendrites / physiology
  • Dentate Gyrus / cytology
  • Dentate Gyrus / drug effects
  • Dentate Gyrus / physiopathology*
  • Fear
  • Glucocorticoids / pharmacology
  • Isoproterenol / pharmacology
  • Learning / drug effects
  • Learning / physiology
  • Long-Term Potentiation / drug effects
  • Long-Term Potentiation / physiology*
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior*
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Synapses / drug effects
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Time Factors


  • Adrenergic beta-Agonists
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Isoproterenol
  • Corticosterone