Long-term effects of intermittent early life stress on primate prefrontal-subcortical functional connectivity

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2021 Jun;46(7):1348-1356. doi: 10.1038/s41386-021-00956-0. Epub 2021 Jan 25.


Correlational studies of humans suggest that exposure to early life stress has long-term effects on neural circuits involved in vulnerability and resilience to mental health disorders. Stress-related mental health disorders are more prevalent in women than in men. Here, female squirrel monkeys are randomized to intermittently stressful (IS) social separations or a non-separated (NS) control condition conducted from 17 to 27 weeks of age. Nine years later in mid-life adulthood, resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging was employed to parcellate prefrontal cortex (PFC). Resulting subdivisions were then used to characterize functional connectivity within PFC, and between PFC subdivisions and subcortical regions that are known to be altered by stress. Extensive hyper-connectivity of medial and orbitofrontal PFC with amygdala, hippocampus, and striatum was observed in IS compared to NS monkeys. Functional hyper-connectivity in IS monkeys was associated with previously reported indications of diminished anxiety-like behavior induced by prepubertal stress. Hyper-connectivity of PFC with amygdala and with hippocampus was also associated with increased ventral striatal dopamine D2 and/or D3 receptor (DRD2/3) availability assessed with positron emission tomography (PET) of [11C]raclopride binding in adulthood. Ventral striatal DRD2/3 availability has been linked to cognitive control, which plays a key role in stress coping as an aspect of emotion regulation. These findings provide causal support for enduring neurobiological effects of early life stress and suggest novel targets for new treatments of stress-related mental health disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Amygdala / diagnostic imaging
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Hippocampus
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Primates