Communal nesting (CN) is a mouse model of early social enrichment during pregnancy and lactation. In this study, a rat model of CN was developed to determine if CN exerts an epigenetic effect in rats selectively bred for an infantile affective trait (high and low rates of ultrasonic distress calls). High and Low offspring from CN groups were compared to standard reared (SN) offspring on five measures of social and affective behavior at three critical ages. A differential effect of the CN paradigm on High and Low lines was seen in measures of anxiety and arousal, but not in measures of depression or social behavior. Neonatal CN subjects emitted fewer distress calls than SN subjects when separated from their dams, and the High line subjects were more affected by the CN procedure. As juveniles, CN subjects showed increased social behaviors in tests of juvenile parenting and play compared to SN subjects. In adulthood, CN differentially increased the activity of Low line subjects. All CN subjects displayed less anxiety behavior in an open field compared to SN subjects; High line subjects were more anxious than Lows. CN reduced immobility and increased attempts to escape on the Porsolt forced swim task relative to SN subjects. These results extend the usefulness of this early enrichment paradigm from mice to rats, and found some rodent species differences in outcomes dependent on the behavioral test. They also emphasize the importance of social contact during pregnancy and lactation on offspring's optimal development across behaviors and ages.
Keywords: Anxiety; Communal nesting; Depression; Parenting behavior; Play behavior; Rats; Ultrasonic vocalizations.
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