The effects of neonatal handling on the development of the adrenocortical response to stress: implications for neuropathology and cognitive deficits in later life

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 1991;16(1-3):85-103. doi: 10.1016/0306-4530(91)90072-2.


Several years ago Levine, Denenberg, Weininger, Ader, and others described the effects of postnatal "handling" on the development of behavioral and endocrine responses to stress. The handling procedure usually involved removing rat pups from their cages, placing the animals together in small containers, and 15-20 min later, returning the animals to their cages and their mothers. The manipulation was performed daily for the first 21 days of life. As adults, handled (H) rats exhibited attenuated fearfulness (e.g., decreased freezing, increased exploration) in novel environments and a less pronounced increase in the secretion of adrenal glucocorticoids in response to a variety of stressors. These findings clearly demonstrated that the development of rudimentary, adaptive responses to stress could be modified by environmental events. We have followed on these earlier handling studies, convinced that this paradigm provides a marvelous opportunity to examine how subtle variations in the early environment alter the development of specific biochemical systems in the brain, leading to stable individual differences in biological responses to stimuli that threaten homeostasis. In this work we have shown how early handling influences the neurochemical development of certain brain regions that regulate the adrenocortical response to stress. Neonatal handling increases the efficiency of this endocrine response to stress, preventing excessive exposure to the highly catabolic adrenal steroids. In later life, this effect appears to protect the animal from potentially damaging effects of these steroids, ensuring the anatomical integrity of brain structures involved in cognitive functioning.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex / growth & development*
  • Adrenal Cortex / physiology
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*