The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is a key area for the regulation of numerous brain functions including stress response and cognitive processes. This brain area is also particularly affected by adversity during early life. Using an animal model in rats, we recently demonstrated that maternal exposure to a high-fat diet (HFD) prevents maternal separation (MS)-induced gene expression alterations in the developing PFC and attenuates several long-term deleterious behavioral effects of MS. In the present study, we ask whether maternal HFD could protect mPFC neurons of pups exposed to early life stress by examining dendritic morphology and spine density in juvenile [postnatal day (PND) 21] and adult rats submitted to MS. Dams were fed either a control or an HFD throughout gestation and lactation, and pups were submitted to MS from PND2 to PND14. We report that maternal HFD prevents MS-induced spine loss at PND21 and dendritic atrophy at adulthood. Furthermore, we show in adult MS rats that PFC-dependent memory extinction deficits are prevented by maternal HFD. Finally, perinatal HFD exposure reverses gut leakiness following stress in pups and seems to exert an anti-stress effect in dams. Overall, our work demonstrates that maternal HFD affects the developing brain and suggests that nutrition, possibly through gut-brain interactions, could modulate mPFC sensitivity to early stress.
Keywords: Conditioned odor preference; Golgi staining; Gut permeability; Maternal nutrition; Maternal separation.