Behavioral and cognitive impact of early life stress: Insights from an animal model

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2017 Aug 1;78:88-95. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2017.05.015. Epub 2017 May 17.


Background: Children subjected to traumatic events during childhood are reported to exhibit behavioral and cognitive deficits later in life, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression. Interestingly, some children continue to remain normal despite being exposed to the same risk factors. These trauma-related behavioral and cognitive profiles across different stages of life are not well understood. Animal studies can offer useful insights.

Objective: The goal of this study was to determine the impact of early life exposure to traumatic events on behavioral and cognitive profile in rats by tracking the behavior of each rat at different ages.

Methods: We utilized the single prolonged stress (SPS), a rodent model of PTSD, to study the effects of early life stress. Male Sprague-Dawley rats were exposed to SPS on post-natal day (PND) 25. Tests to assess anxiety- and depression-like behavior, as well as learning and memory function were performed at PND32, 60 and 90.

Results: Rats exposed to SPS exhibited both anxiety- and depression-like behavior at PND32. And, short-term (STM) but not long-term memory (LTM) was impaired. Rats exposed to SPS at PND60 exhibited anxiety- but not depression-like behavior. STM but not LTM was impaired. Rats exposed to SPS at PND90 exhibited fearful (as indicated by elevated plus maze test) but not an overall anxiety-like behavior (in light and dark test). These rats also displayed significant depression-like behavior with no changes in STM or LTM. Interestingly, when data was further analyzed, two subsets of PND90 rats exposed to SPS were identified, "susceptible": with depression-like behavior and "resilient": without depression-like behavior. Importantly, while resilient group expressed early signs of anxiety- (at PND32 and PND60) and depression-like behavior (at PND32), these behavioral deficits were absent at PND90. On the other hand, susceptible PND90 rats exposed to SPS expressed later onset of anxiety-like behavior (at PND60), while depression-like phenotype was evident only later on at PND90.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that early life stress caused co-occurrence of anxiety and depression-like behavior at PND32 (mimics human early-adolescent period). This co-occurrence was lost at PND60 with demonstration of anxiety- but not depression-like behavior. Later, depression but not anxiety-like behavior was observed at PND90. It seems that behavioral adaptations occur at the critical PND60 stage (mimics human late-adolescent period), where behavioral and cognitive switching occurs, thereby, expressing susceptible and resilient phenotypes.

Keywords: Early life stress; PTSD; Psychological stress; Resilience; Trauma.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aging / psychology*
  • Animals
  • Disease Models, Animal*
  • Male
  • Maze Learning*
  • Memory*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*