Although there has been an abundance of research focused on offspring outcomes associated with maternal experiences, there has been limited examination of the relationship between paternal experiences and offspring brain development. As spermatogenesis is a continuous process, experiences that have the ability to alter epigenetic regulation in fathers may actually change developmental trajectories of offspring. The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of paternal stress prior to conception on behaviour and the epigenome of both male and female developing rat offspring. Male Long-Evans rats were stressed for 27 consecutive days and then mated with control female rats. Early behaviour was tested in offspring using the negative geotaxis task and the open field. At P21 offspring were sacrificed and global DNA methylation levels in the hippocampus and frontal cortex were analysed. Paternal stress prior to conception altered behaviour of all offspring on the negative geotaxis task, delaying acquisition of the task. In addition, male offspring demonstrated a reduction in stress reactivity in the open field paradigm spending more time than expected in the centre of the open field. Paternal stress also altered DNA methylation patterns in offspring at P21, global methylation was reduced in the frontal cortex of female offspring, but increased in the hippocampus of both male and female offspring. The results from this study clearly demonstrate that paternal stress during spermatogenesis can influence offspring behaviour and DNA methylation patterns, and these affects occur in a sex-dependent manner. Development takes place in the centre of a complex interaction between maternal, paternal, and environmental influences, which combine to produce the various phenotypes and individual differences that we perceive.
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