Chronic stress is a risk factor for many psychopathological conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders. Cognitive impairments associated with prefrontal cortical dysfunction are a major component of such illnesses. Using an attentional set-shifting test (AST), we have previously shown that elevating noradrenergic activity in rat medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) can facilitate cognitive set-shifting, and that chronic unpredictable stress (CUS) caused set-shifting deficits. It is not known, however, if noradrenergic modulatory function is compromised by chronic stress, perhaps contributing to the stress-induced cognitive deficit. Thus, the first study investigated whether acutely elevating noradrenergic activity in mPFC still enhances cognitive function after chronic stress. As previously demonstrated, CUS impaired cognitive set-shifting on the AST. This deficit was abolished by acute systemic administration of the alpha(2)-adrenergic autoreceptor antagonist, atipamezole. Microdialysis revealed no differences in extracellular norepinephrine (NE) levels in mPFC of CUS-exposed and unstressed control rats at baseline or during behavioral testing, and comparable increases after atipamezole. In the second experiment, rats were treated chronically with the selective NE reuptake blocker, desipramine, during the CUS treatment through behavioral testing. Again, CUS impaired cognitive set-shifting in vehicle-treated rats, and chronic desipramine treatment prevented such deficits. Acute blockade of post-synaptic alpha(1)-adrenergic receptors in mPFC prior to testing blocked the beneficial effect of desipramine on cognitive set-shifting. These results suggest that desipramine restores cognitive set-shifting capability that has been compromised by chronic stress by activating alpha(1)-adrenergic receptors in the mPFC. Thus, noradrenergic modulatory capability in mPFC remains intact after CUS, and this represents one possible substrate by which antidepressants may exert their beneficial effects in the treatment of depression.
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