Background: Infectious diseases and inflammation during pregnancy increase the offspring's risk for behavioral disorders. However, how immune stress affects neural circuitry during development is not well known. We tested whether a prenatal immune challenge interferes with the development of social play and with neural circuits implicated in social behavior.
Methods: Pregnant rats were given intraperitoneal injections of the bacterial endotoxin lipopolysaccharide (LPS - 100 μg /kg) or saline on the 15th day of pregnancy. Offspring were tested for social play behaviors between postnatal days 26-40. Brains were harvested on postnatal day 45 and processed for arginine vasopressin (AVP) mRNA in situ hybridization.
Results: In males, LPS treatment reduced the frequency of juvenile play behavior and reduced AVP mRNA expression in the medial amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. These effects were not found in females. LPS treatment did not change AVP mRNA expression in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, paraventricular nucleus, or supraoptic nucleus of either sex, nor did it affect the sex difference in the size of the sexually dimorphic nucleus of the preoptic area.
Conclusions: Given AVP's central role in regulating social behavior, the sexually dimorphic effects of prenatal LPS treatment on male AVP mRNA expression may contribute to the sexually dimorphic effect of LPS on male social play and may, therefore, increase understanding of factors that contribute to sex differences in social psychopathology.