Many psychological disorders comprise a seasonal component. For instance, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterized by depression during autumn and winter. Because hippocampal atrophy may underlie the symptoms of depression and depressive-like behaviors, one goal of this study was to determine whether short days also induce structural changes in the hippocampus using photoperiod responsive rodents--Siberian hamsters. Exposure to short days increases depressive-like responses (increased immobility in the forced swim test) in hamsters. Male hamsters were housed in either short (LD 8:16) or long days (LD 16:8) for 10 weeks and tested in the forced swim test. Brains were removed and processed for Golgi impregnation. HPA axis function may account for photoperiod-related changes in depressive-like responses. Thus, stress reactivity was assessed in another cohort of photoperiod-manipulated animals. Short days reduced soma size and dendritic complexity in the CA1 region. Photoperiod did not induce gross changes in stress reactivity, but an acute stressor disrupted the typical nocturnal peak in cortisol concentrations. These data reveal that immobility induced by exposure to short days is correlated with reduced CA1 cell complexity (and perhaps connectivity). This study is the first to investigate hippocampal changes in the context of short-day induced immobility and may be relevant for understanding psychological disorders with a seasonal component.
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