Differential effects of social and physical environmental enrichment on brain plasticity, cognition, and ultrasonic communication in rats

J Comp Neurol. 2016 Jun 1;524(8):1586-607. doi: 10.1002/cne.23842. Epub 2015 Aug 10.


Environmental enrichment (EE) exerts beneficial effects on brain plasticity, cognition, and anxiety/depression, leading to a brain that can counteract deficits underlying various brain disorders. Because the complexity of the EE commonly used makes it difficult to identify causal aspects, we examined possible factors using a 2 × 2 design with social EE (two vs. six rats) and physical EE (physically enriched vs. nonenriched). For the first time, we demonstrate that social and physical EE have differential effects on brain plasticity, cognition, and ultrasonic communication. Expectedly, physical EE promoted neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampal formation, but not in the subventricular zone, and, as a novel finding, affected microRNA expression levels, with the activity-dependent miR-124 and miR-132 being upregulated. Concomitant improvements in cognition were observed, yet social deficits were seen in the emission of prosocial 50-kHz ultrasonic vocalizations (USV) paralleled by a lack of social approach in response to them, consistent with the intense world syndrome/theory of autism. In contrast, social EE had only minor effects on brain plasticity and cognition, but led to increased prosocial 50-kHz USV emission rates and enhanced social approach behavior. Importantly, social deficits following physical EE were prevented by additional social EE. The finding that social EE has positive whereas physical EE has negative effects on social behavior indicates that preclinical studies focusing on EE as a potential treatment in models for neuropsychiatric disorders characterized by social deficits, such as autism, should include social EE in addition to physical EE, because its lack might worsen social deficits.

Keywords: AB_2160651; RRID: AB_10013660; autism; enriched environment; learning and memory; microRNA; neurogenesis; nif-0000-30176; nif-0000-3092; nlx_144442; nlx_152478; social behavior; ultrasonic vocalization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Housing, Animal
  • Male
  • Neurogenesis / physiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Social Environment*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*