Sex-specific behavioral and structural alterations caused by early-life stress in C57BL/6 and BTBR mice

Behav Brain Res. 2021 Sep 24;414:113489. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2021.113489. Epub 2021 Jul 22.


Lately, the development of various mental illnesses, such as depression, personality disorders, and autism spectrum disorders, is often associated with traumatic events in childhood. Nonetheless, the mechanism giving rise to this predisposition is still unknown. Because the development of a disease often depends on a combination of a genetic background and environment, we decided to evaluate the effect of early-life stress on BTBR mice, which have behavioral, neuroanatomical, and physiological features of autism spectrum disorders. As early-life stress, we used prolonged separation of pups from their mothers in the first 2 weeks of life (3 h once a day). We assessed effects of the early-life stress on juvenile (postnatal day 23) and adolescent (postnatal days 37-38) male and female mice of strains C57BL/6 (B6) and BTBR. We found that in both strains, the early-life stress did not lead to changes in the level of social behavior, which is an important characteristic of autism-related behavior. Nonetheless, the early-life stress resulted in increased locomotor activity in juvenile BTBR mice. In adolescent mice, the stress early in life caused a low level of anxiety in B6 males and BTBR females and increased exploratory activity in adolescent BTBR males and females. In addition, adolescent B6 male and female mice with a history of the early-life stress tended to have a thinner motor cortex as assessed by magnetic resonance imaging. As compared to B6 mice, BTBR mice showed reduced levels of social behavior and exploratory activity but their level of locomotor activity was higher. BTBR mice had smaller whole-brain, cortical, and dorsal hippocampal volumes; decreased motor cortex thickness; and increased ventral-hippocampus volume as compared to B6 mice, and these parameters correlated with the level of exploratory behavior of BTBR mice. Overall, the effects of early postnatal stress are sex- and strain-dependent.

Keywords: Adolescent mice; BTBR; C57Bl/6; Early-life stress; Juvenile mice; Sex-specific effects; Strain-specific effects.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Male
  • Maternal Deprivation
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Inbred Strains*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Stress, Psychological / pathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*