Behavioral effects of early life maternal trauma witness in rats

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2018 Feb 2;81:80-87. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2017.10.013. Epub 2017 Oct 24.


Background: Earlier, we have reported that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-like behaviors developed in rats that witnessed their cage mates undergo repeated traumatic stress. More recently, we published that early life physical traumatic stress leads to later life depression-like behaviors in rats. Whether early life trauma witness causes later life PTSD-like behaviors is not known. Also unclear are sex-specific stress-induced behavioral variations in later life. The early life witness component of stress is an important aspect of stress-induced psychopathologies and must be investigated.

Objective: Here, we have examined the impact of early life repeated witnessing of traumatic events by pups from post-natal day (PND) 21-PND27, on later life behaviors at PND60, and the behavioral impact of postpartum traumatic stress in female rats.

Methods: We used a modified version of rodent social defeat model to induce postpartum stress in female rats and trauma witness stress in pups. One female Sprague-Dawley rat (intruder) was introduced into the cage of an aggressive Long-Evans male rat (resident). The encounter between the two resulted in attacks between the female rat and the Long-Evans male rat. Three exposures of social defeat (attacks) were given for 7 consecutive days. The social defeat traumatic events were witnessed by 6 pups (offspring of the intruder female rat, PND21-27), placed in six separate enclosures surrounding the cage. The objective of this experiment was three-fold: 1) to test later life behavioral effects in pups from witnessing maternal defeat, 2) to examine gender susceptibility of pups in maternal defeat witness-induced behaviors, 3) to test behavioral effect in female rats 24h after receiving the last social defeat exposure.

Results: We observed that while anxiety-like behavior assessed in open-field and elevated plus-maze tests, was not affected in male or female rats upon witnessing repeated maternal traumatic stress, depression-like behavior in forced-swim test was observed at PND60 in both male and female rats, with greater effect in male rats. No change was observed in learning and memory functions using radial arm water maze test in both male and female rats. Interestingly, socially defeated female rats (dams: mother of the pups) developed both anxiety and depression-like behavior with no change in learning-memory function when compared to control female rats.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that early life maternal stress witness history leads to depression-like behavior in both male and female adult rats, and dams developed both anxiety and depression-like behaviors.

Keywords: Animal behavior; Anxiety; Depression; Early life stress; PTSD; Stress; Witness trauma.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Dominance-Subordination
  • Equipment Design
  • Exploratory Behavior
  • Female
  • Housing, Animal
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior*
  • Maze Learning
  • Motor Activity
  • Postpartum Period
  • Psychological Tests
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Social Perception*
  • Spatial Memory
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic*
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Visual Perception