Pre and Post-Natal Antigen Exposure Can Program the Stress Axis of Adult Zebra Finches: Evidence for Environment Matching

Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Mar;45:71-9. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2014.12.013. Epub 2014 Dec 20.


Both maternal exposure to stressors and exposure of offspring to stressors during early life can have lifelong effects on the physiology and behavior of offspring. Stress exposure can permanently shape an individual's phenotype by influencing the development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is responsible for the production and regulation of glucocorticoids such as corticosterone (CORT). In this study we used captive zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) to examine the effects of matching and mismatching maternal and early post-natal exposure to one of two types of antigens or a control on HPA axis reactivity in adult offspring. Prior to breeding, adult females were injected with lipopolysaccharide (LPS), keyhole limpet hemocyanin (KLH) or a control. Offspring of females in each of the three treatments were themselves exposed to LPS, KLH or a control injection at 5 and 28days post-hatch. When offspring were at least 18months of age, standardized capture and restraint stress tests were conducted to determine the impact of the treatments on adult stress responsiveness. We found significant interaction effects between maternal and offspring treatments on stress-induced CORT levels, and evidence in support of the environment matching hypothesis for KLH-treated birds, not LPS-treated birds. KLH-treated offspring of KLH-treated mothers exhibited reduced stress-induced CORT levels, whereas LPS-treated or control offspring of KLH-treated mothers exhibited elevated stress-induced CORT levels. Although the treatment effects on baseline CORT were non-significant, the overall pattern was similar to the effects observed on stress-induced CORT levels. Our results highlight the complex nature of HPA axis programming, and to our knowledge, provide the first evidence that a match or mismatch between pre and post-natal antigen exposure can have life-long consequences for HPA axis function.

Keywords: Corticosterone; Development; Environment matching; Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis; Keyhole limpet hemocyanin; Lipopolysaccharide; Maternal effects; Maternal immune activation; Stressors.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adjuvants, Immunologic / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Corticosterone / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Finches
  • Hemocyanins / pharmacology*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / drug effects
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism*
  • Lipopolysaccharides / pharmacology*
  • Maternal Exposure*
  • Oviparity
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / drug effects
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism*
  • Stress, Physiological / drug effects
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*


  • Adjuvants, Immunologic
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Hemocyanins
  • keyhole-limpet hemocyanin
  • Corticosterone