Prenatal stressors in rodents: Effects on behavior

Neurobiol Stress. 2016 Aug 29:6:3-13. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2016.08.004. eCollection 2017 Feb.


The current review focuses on studies in rodents published since 2008 and explores possible reasons for any differences they report in the effects of gestational stress on various types of behavior in the offspring. An abundance of experimental data shows that different maternal stressors in rodents can replicate some of the abnormalities in offspring behavior observed in humans. These include, anxiety, in juvenile and adult rats and mice, assessed in the elevated plus maze and open field tests and depression, detected in the forced swim and sucrose-preference tests. Deficits were reported in social interaction that is suggestive of pathology associated with schizophrenia, and in spatial learning and memory in adult rats in the Morris water maze test, but in most studies only males were tested. There were too few studies on the novel object recognition test at different inter-trial intervals to enable a conclusion about the effect of prenatal stress and whether any deficits are more prevalent in males. Among hippocampal glutamate receptors, NR2B was the only subtype consistently reduced in association with learning deficits. However, like in humans with schizophrenia and depression, prenatal stress lowered hippocampal levels of BDNF, which were closely correlated with decreases in hippocampal long-term potentiation. In mice, down-regulation of BDNF appeared to occur through the action of gene-methylating enzymes that are already increased above controls in prenatally-stressed neonates. In conclusion, the data obtained so far from experiments in rodents lend support to a physiological basis for the neurodevelopmental hypothesis of schizophrenia and depression.

Keywords: Anxiety and depressive-like behavior; BDNF; Epigenetic mechanisms; Glutamate receptors; Memory; Social interaction.

Publication types

  • Review