Experience of adversity early in life and dysregulation of hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis activity are risk factors often independently associated with the development of psychopathological disorders, including depression, PTSD and pathological aggression. Additional evidence suggests that in combination these factors may interact to shape the development and expression of psychopathology differentially, though little is known about underlying mechanisms. Here, we studied the long-term consequences of early life stress exposure on individuals with differential constitutive glucocorticoid responsiveness to repeated stressor exposure, assessing both socio-affective behaviors and brain activity in regions sensitive to pathological alterations following stress. Two rat lines, genetically selected for either low or high glucocorticoid responsiveness to repeated stress were exposed to a series of unpredictable, fear-inducing stressors on intermittent days during the peripuberty period. Results obtained at adulthood indicated that having high glucocorticoid responses to repeated stress and having experience of peripuberty stress independently enhanced levels of psychopathology-like behaviors, as well as increasing basal activity in several prefrontal and limbic brain regions in a manner associated with enhanced behavioral inhibition. Interestingly, peripuberty stress had a differential impact on aggression in the two rat lines, enhancing aggression in the low-responsive line but not in the already high-aggressive, high-responsive rats. Taken together, these findings indicate that aberrant HPA axis activity around puberty, a key period in the development of social repertoire in both rats and humans, may alter behavior such that it becomes anti-social in nature.
Keywords: Aggression; HPA axis; anxiety; gene-environment interaction; individual differences; stress habituation.