Effects of early life social stress on maternal behavior and neuroendocrinology

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Feb;38(2):219-28. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.05.020. Epub 2012 Jul 7.


Maternal mood disorders such as depression and chronic anxiety can negatively affect the lives of both mothers and their adult offspring. An active focus of maternal depression and anxiety research has been the role of chronic social stress in the development of these disorders. Chronic exposure to social stress is common in humans, especially in lactating mothers, and postpartum mood disorders have been correlated with high levels of social conflict and low levels of social support. Recent studies have described an effective and ethologically relevant chronic social stress (CSS) based rodent model for postpartum depression and anxiety. Since CSS attenuates maternal behavior and impairs both dam and offspring growth, it was hypothesized that CSS is an ethologically relevant form of early life stress for the developing female offspring and may have effects on subsequent adult maternal behavior and neuroendocrinology. Dams exposed to early life CSS as infants display substantial increases in pup retrieval and nursing behavior that are specifically associated with attenuated oxytocin, prolactin, and vasopressin gene expression in brain nuclei involved in the control of maternal behavior. Since the growth patterns of both groups were similar despite substantial increases in nursing duration, the early life CSS dams exhibited an attenuated nursing efficiency. It is concluded that early life CSS has long term effects on the neuroendocrinology of maternal care (oxytocin and prolactin) which results in decreased nursing efficiency in the adult dams. The data support the use of early life CSS as an effective model for stress-induced impairments in nursing, such as those associated with postpartum depression and anxiety.

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / physiology
  • Aggression / psychology
  • Animals
  • Arginine Vasopressin / biosynthesis*
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gene Expression / physiology
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology*
  • Oxytocin / biosynthesis*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / biosynthesis
  • Receptors, Prolactin / biosynthesis
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*


  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Receptors, Prolactin
  • Arginine Vasopressin
  • Oxytocin