Multi-hit early life adversity affects gut microbiota, brain and behavior in a sex-dependent manner

Brain Behav Immun. 2019 Aug;80:179-192. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2019.03.006. Epub 2019 Mar 11.


The accumulation of adverse events in utero and during childhood differentially increases the vulnerability to psychiatric diseases in men and women. Gut microbiota is highly sensitive to the early environment and has been recently hypothesized to affect brain development. However, the impact of early-life adversity on gut microbiota, notably with regards to sex differences, remains to be explored. We examined the effects of multifactorial early-life adversity on behavior and microbiota composition in C3H/HeN mice of both sexes exposed to a combination of maternal immune activation (lipopolysaccharide injection on embryonic day 17, 120 µg/kg, i.p.), maternal separation (3hr per day from postnatal day (PND)2 to PND14) and maternal unpredictable chronic mild stress. At adulthood, offspring exposed to multi-hit early adversity showed sex-specific behavioral phenotypes with males exhibiting deficits in social behavior and females showing increased anxiety in the elevated plus maze and increased compulsive behavior in the marble burying test. Early adversity also differentially regulated gene expression in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) according to sex. Interestingly, several genes such as Arc, Btg2, Fosb, Egr4 or Klf2 were oppositely regulated by early adversity in males versus females. Finally, 16S-based microbiota profiling revealed sex-dependent gut dysbiosis. In males, abundance of taxa belonging to Lachnospiraceae and Porphyromonadaceae families or other unclassified Firmicutes, but also Bacteroides, Lactobacillus and Alloprevotella genera was regulated by early adversity. In females, the effects of early adversity were limited and mainly restricted to Lactobacillus and Mucispirillum genera. Our work reveals marked sex differences in a multifactorial model of early-life adversity, both on emotional behaviors and gut microbiota, suggesting that sex should systematically be considered in preclinical studies both in neurogastroenterology and psychiatric research.

Keywords: Early-life stress; Emotional behavior; Gut-brain axis; HPA axis; Intestinal permeability; Lipopolysaccharides; Medial prefrontal cortex; Ultrasonic vocalizations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Anxiety / metabolism
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Dysbiosis / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome / physiology*
  • Male
  • Maternal Deprivation
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C3H
  • Microbiota
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Behavior
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / microbiology*