Examining the role of the offspring in early social dynamics is especially difficult. Human developmental psychology has found infant behavior to be a vital part of the early environmental setting. In the rodent model, the different ways that a rodent neonate or pup can influence social dynamics are not well known. Typically, litters of neonates or pups offer complex social interactions dominated by behavior seemingly initiated and maintained by the primary caregiver (e.g., the dam). Despite this strong role for the caregiver, the young most likely influence the litter dynamics in many powerful ways including communication signals, discrimination abilities and early approach behavior. Nelson and Panksepp (1996) developed a preference task to examine early rodent pup social motivation. We have used the same task to examine how variations in maternal care or different environmental perturbations could alter the rat pup preferences for social-related stimuli. Rat pups receiving low levels of maternal licking and grooming were impaired in maternal odor cue learning and emitted lower levels of 22kHz ultrasounds compared to pups from the high licking and grooming cohort. Prenatal stress or early exposure to a toxicant (polychlorinated biphenyl) altered early social preferences in the rat pup in different ways indicating that diverse strategies are expressed and specific to the type of perturbation exposure. A greater focus on the offspring motivation following early 'stressors' will allow for more complete understanding of the dynamics in behavior during early social development.
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