Severe childhood and adulthood stress associates with neocortical layer-specific reductions of mature spines in psychiatric disorders

Neurobiol Stress. 2020 Nov 21;13:100270. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2020.100270. eCollection 2020 Nov.


Severe stress exposure causes the loss of dendritic spines on cortical pyramidal neurons and induces psychiatric-like symptoms in rodent models. These effects are strongest following early-life stress and are most persistent on apical dendrites. However, the long-term impacts and temporal effects of stress exposure on the human brain remain poorly understood. Using a novel postmortem cohort of psychiatric cases with severe stress experienced in childhood, adulthood, or no severe stress, and matched controls, we aimed to determine the impact of stress timing on pyramidal neuron structure in the human orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). We performed Golgi Cox staining and manually measured the morphology and density of over 22,000 dendritic spines on layer-specific pyramidal neuron apical dendrites. We also quantified glucocorticoid receptor mRNA and protein as a marker of stress dysregulation. Both childhood and adulthood stress were associated with large reductions in mature mushroom spine density (up to 56% loss) in both the superficial (II/III) and deeper layers (V) of the OFC. However, childhood stress caused more substantial reductions to both total and mature mushroom spines. No difference in glucocorticoid receptor mRNA and protein were seen between groups, although both negatively correlated with total spine density within the whole cohort. These findings indicate that severe stress, especially when experienced during childhood, persistently affects the fine morphological properties of neurons in the human OFC. This may impact on cell connectivity in this brain area, and at least partly explain the social and emotional symptoms that originate in the OFC in psychiatric disorders.

Keywords: Cortex; Cytoarchitecture; Dendritic spines; Early-life adversity; Psychiatry; Stress.