Witnessing traumatic events causes severe behavioral impairments in rats

Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2014 Dec;17(12):2017-29. doi: 10.1017/S1461145714000923. Epub 2014 Jun 2.


Witnessing a traumatic event but not directly experiencing it can be psychologically quite damaging. In North America alone, ∼30% of individuals who witness a traumatic event develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While effects of direct trauma are evident, consequences of indirect or secondary trauma are often ignored. Also unclear is the role of social support in the consequences of these experiences. The social defeat paradigm, which involves aggressive encounters by a large Long-Evans male rat (resident) towards a smaller Sprague-Dawley male rat (intruder), is considered a rodent model of PTSD. We have modified this model to create a trauma witness model (TWM) and have used our TWM model to also evaluate social support effects. Basically, when an intruder rat is placed into the home cage of a resident rat, it encounters an agonistic behavior resulting in intruder subordination. The socially defeated intruder is designated the SD rat. A second rat, the cage mate of the SD, is positioned to witness the event and is the trauma witnessing (TW) rat. Experiments were performed in two different experimental conditions. In one, the SD and TW rats were cagemates and acclimatized together. Then, one SD rat was subjected to three sessions of social defeat for 7 d. TW rat witnessed these events. After each social defeat exposure, the TW and SD rats were housed together. In the second, the TW and SD rats were housed separately starting after the first defeat. At the end of each protocol, depression-anxiety-like behavior and memory tests were conducted on the SD and TW rats, blood withdrawn and specific organs collected. Witnessing traumatic events led to depression- and anxiety-like behavior and produced memory deficits in TW rats associated with elevated corticosterone levels.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / pathology
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Depression / pathology
  • Depression / physiopathology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Dominance-Subordination*
  • Housing, Animal
  • Male
  • Memory Disorders / pathology
  • Memory Disorders / physiopathology
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Social Behavior*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / pathology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Visual Perception*


  • Corticosterone