Combined early life stressors: Prenatal nicotine and maternal deprivation interact to influence affective and drug seeking behavioral phenotypes in rats

Behav Brain Res. 2019 Feb 1:359:814-822. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2018.07.022. Epub 2018 Jul 25.


Early life stress (ELS) increases the risk for later cognitive and emotional dysfunction, and has been implicated in the etiology of multiple psychiatric disorders. We hypothesize that combined insults during gestation and infancy, critical periods of neural development, could exacerbate neuropsychiatric outcomes in later life. Thus, we investigated the effects of maternal deprivation (MD) stress alone or combined with prenatal nicotine exposure (PNE) on negative affective states, ethanol drinking, and development of mesolimbic loci that regulate depression and drug dependence. On the elevated plus maze (EPM), MD rats exhibited ∼50% increase in risk-taking behavior/decreased anxiety when compared to control, but the combined MD + PNE did not affect this specific behavior. In the open field test, however, both MD and MD + PNE groups showed 2-fold greater locomotor activity. Furthermore, whereas MD showed greater latency to fall at 40 RPM on the rotarod compared to control, the MD + PNE animals' latency to fall was significantly greater at all RPMs tested, with an approximate 15% enhancement in motor coordination overall compared to control and MD. Analyses of depressive symptomatology with the forced swim test (FST) yielded 2- and 3-fold higher immobility times in MD and MD + PNE respectively. When tested in an operant drinking paradigm to quantify the effect of treatment on 10%v/v ethanol drinking, the MD and MD + PNE groups showed heightened ethanol consumption by ∼3- and 2-fold respectively. However, the experience of PNE reduced ethanol consumption in adults relative to MD alone. To test the stressors' impact on neurons in the amygdala and ventral tegmental area (VTA), mesolimbic anatomical regions associated with mood and reward, unbiased stereological measurements were performed and revealed ∼15% increase in number and density of neurons in the amygdala for both MD and MD + PNE, and ∼13% reduction in dopaminergic-like neurons in the VTA compared to control. We report here that multiple early stressors including prenatal nicotine and MD can modulate the neuroanatomy of the amygdala and VTA. These early life stressors can interact to influence the development of depressive-like and addictive behaviors.

Keywords: Addiction; Anxiety; Depression; Early life stress; Maternal deprivation; Maternal separation; Nicotine.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiology
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / pharmacology
  • Drug-Seeking Behavior / drug effects*
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage
  • Exploratory Behavior / drug effects
  • Female
  • Male
  • Maternal Deprivation*
  • Maze Learning / drug effects
  • Mood Disorders / etiology
  • Mood Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Nicotine / toxicity*
  • Nicotinic Agonists / toxicity*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sucrose / administration & dosage
  • Swimming / psychology


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Ethanol
  • Sucrose
  • Nicotine