Background: Environmental enrichment (EE) fosters attachment behavior through its effect on brain oxytocin levels in the hippocampus and other brain regions, which in turn modulate the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA). Social isolation and other stressors negatively impact physical healing through their effect on the HPA. Therefore, we reasoned that: 1) provision of a rat EE (nest building with Nestlets) would improve wound healing in rats undergoing stress due to isolation rearing and 2) that oxytocin would have a similar beneficial effect on wound healing.
Methodology/principal findings: In the first two experiments, we provided isolation reared rats with either EE or oxytocin and compared their wound healing to group reared rats and isolation reared rats that did not receive Nestlets or oxytocin. In the third experiment, we examined the effect of Nestlets on open field locomotion and immediate early gene (IEG) expression. We found that isolation reared rats treated with Nestlets a) healed significantly better than without Nestlets, 2) healed at a similar rate to rats treated with oxytocin, 3) had decreased hyperactivity in the open field test, and 4) had normalized IEG expression in brain hippocampus.
Conclusions/significance: This study shows that when an EE strategy or oxytocin is given to isolation reared rats, the peripheral stress response, as measured by burn injury healing, is decreased. The findings indicate an association between the effect of nest making on wound healing and administration of the pro-bonding hormone oxytocin. Further elucidation of this animal model should lead to improved understanding of how EE strategies can ameliorate poor wound healing and other symptoms that result from isolation stress.