Early life adversity affecting the attachment bond alters ventral tegmental area transcriptomic patterning and behavior almost exclusively in female mice

Neurobiol Stress. 2021 Oct 4;15:100406. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2021.100406. eCollection 2021 Nov.


Early life experiences that affect the attachment bond formation can alter developmental trajectories and result in pathological outcomes in a sex-related manner. However, the molecular basis of sex differences is quite unknown. The dopaminergic system originating from the ventral tegmental area has been proposed to be a key mediator of this process. Here we exploited a murine model of early adversity (Repeated Cross Fostering, RCF) to test how interfering with the attachment bond formation affects the VTA-related functions in a sex-specific manner. Through a comprehensive behavioral screening, within the NiH RDoC framework, and by next-generation RNA-Seq experiments, we analyzed the long-lasting effect of RCF on behavioral and transcriptional profiles related to the VTA, across two different inbred strains of mouse in both sexes. We found that RCF impacted to an extremely greater extent VTA-related behaviors in females than in males and this result mirrored the transcriptional alterations in the VTA that were almost exclusively observed in females. The sexual dimorphism was conserved across two different inbred strains in spite of their divergent long lasting consequences of RCF exposure. Our data suggest that to be female primes a sub-set of genes to respond to early environmental perturbations. This is, to the best of our knowledge, the first evidence of an almost exclusive effect of early life experiences on females, thus mirroring the extremely stronger impact of precocious aversive events reported in clinical studies in women.

Keywords: Attachment bond; Early adversity; Gene expression; Research domain criteria; Sex-dependent differences; Ventral tegmental area.