Early stress evokes age-dependent biphasic changes in hippocampal neurogenesis, BDNF expression, and cognition

Biol Psychiatry. 2013 Apr 1;73(7):658-66. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.10.023. Epub 2012 Dec 11.


Background: Adult-onset stressors exert opposing effects on hippocampal neurogenesis and cognition, with enhancement observed following mild stress and dysfunction following severe chronic stress. While early life stress evokes persistent changes in anxiety, it is unknown whether early stress differentially regulates hippocampal neurogenesis, trophic factor expression, and cognition across the life span.

Methods: Hippocampal-dependent cognitive behavior, neurogenesis, and epigenetic regulation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (Bdnf) expression was examined at distinct time points across the life span in rats subjected to the early stress of maternal separation (ES) and control groups. We also examined the influence of chronic antidepressant treatment on the neurogenic, neurotrophic, and cognitive changes in middle-aged ES animals.

Results: Animals subjected to early stress of maternal separation examined during postnatal life and young adulthood exhibited enhanced hippocampal neurogenesis, decreased repressive histone methylation at the Bdnf IV promoter along with enhanced BDNF levels, and improved performance on the stress-associated Morris water maze. Strikingly, opposing changes in hippocampal neurogenesis and epigenetic regulation of Bdnf IV expression, concomitant with impairments on hippocampal-dependent cognitive tasks, were observed in middle-aged ES animals. Chronic antidepressant treatment with amitriptyline attenuated the maladaptive neurogenic, epigenetic, transcriptional, and cognitive effects in middle-aged ES animals.

Conclusions: Our study provides novel insights into the short- and long-term consequences of ES, demonstrating both biphasic and unique, age-dependent changes at the molecular, epigenetic, neurogenic, and behavioral levels. These results indicate that early stress may transiently endow animals with a potential adaptive advantage in stressful environments but across a life span is associated with long-term deleterious effects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology*
  • Amitriptyline / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Antidepressive Agents, Tricyclic / pharmacology
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / biosynthesis*
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / drug effects
  • Hippocampus / drug effects
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Male
  • Maternal Deprivation*
  • Maze Learning / drug effects
  • Neurogenesis / drug effects
  • Neurogenesis / physiology*
  • Rats


  • Antidepressive Agents, Tricyclic
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Amitriptyline