Access to a high resource environment protects against accelerated maturation following early life stress: A translational animal model of high, medium and low security settings

Horm Behav. 2019 May:111:46-59. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2019.01.003. Epub 2019 Mar 2.


Early life exposure to a low security setting, characterized by a scarcity of resources and limited food access, increases the risk for psychiatric illness and metabolic dysfunction. We utilized a translational rat model to mimic a low security environment and determined how this manipulation affected offspring behavior, metabolism, and puberty. Because food insecurity in humans is associated with reduced access to healthy food options the "low security" rat manipulation combined a Western diet with exposure to a limited bedding and nesting manipulation (WD-LB). In this setting, dams were provided with limited nesting materials during the pups' early life (P2-P10). This manipulation was contrasted with standard rodent caging (SD) and environmental enrichment (EE), to model "medium security" and "high security" environments, respectively. To determine if transitioning from a low to high security environment improved outcomes, some juvenile WD-LB offspring were exposed to EE. Maternal care was impacted by these environments such that EE dams engaged in high quality care when on the nest, but spent less time on the nest than SD dams. Although WD-LB dams excessively chased their tails, they were very attentive to their pups, perhaps to compensate for limited resources. Offspring exposed to WD-LB only displayed subtle changes in behavior. However, WD-LB exposure resulted in significant metabolic dysfunction characterized by increased body weight, precocious puberty and alterations in the hypothalamic kisspeptin system. These negative effects of WD-LB on puberty and weight regulation were mitigated by EE exposure. Collectively, these studies suggest that both compensatory maternal care and juvenile enrichment can reduce the impact of a low security environment. Moreover, they highlight how utilizing diverse models of resource (in)stability can reveal mechanisms that confer vulnerability and resilience to early life stress.

Keywords: Animal models; Early life stress; Environmental enrichment; Kisspeptin; Limited bedding; Maternal care; Precocious puberty; Social economic status; Western diet.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Housing, Animal*
  • Hypothalamus / metabolism
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology
  • Physical Stimulation / methods
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sexual Maturation / physiology*
  • Social Environment*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology