Strain-specific changes in nucleus accumbens transcriptome and motivation for palatable food reward in mice exposed to maternal separation

Front Nutr. 2023 Jul 26:10:1190392. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2023.1190392. eCollection 2023.


Introduction: In humans, adversity in childhood exerts enduring effects on brain and increases the vulnerability to psychiatric diseases. It also leads to a higher risk of eating disorders and obesity. Maternal separation (MS) in mice has been used as a proxy of stress during infancy. We hypothesized that MS in mice affects motivation to obtain palatable food in adulthood and changes gene expression in reward system.

Methods: Male and female pups from C57Bl/6J and C3H/HeN mice strains were subjected to a daily MS protocol from postnatal day (PND) 2 to PND14. At adulthood, their motivation for palatable food reward was assessed in operant cages.

Results: Compared to control mice, male and female C3H/HeN mice exposed to MS increased their instrumental response for palatable food, especially when the effort required to obtain the reward was high. Importantly, this effect is shown in animals fed ad libitum. Transcriptional analysis revealed 375 genes differentially expressed in the nucleus accumbens of male MS C3H/HeN mice compared to the control group, some of these being associated with the regulation of the reward system (e.g., Gnas, Pnoc). Interestingly, C57Bl/6J mice exposed to MS did not show alterations in their motivation to obtain a palatable reward, nor significant changes in gene expression in the nucleus accumbens.

Conclusion: MS produces long-lasting changes in motivation for palatable food in C3H/HeN mice, but has no impact in C57Bl/6J mice. These behavioral alterations are accompanied by drastic changes in gene expression in the nucleus accumbens, a key structure in the regulation of motivational processes.

Keywords: C3H/HeN mice; early life stress; mesolimbic circuit; operant conditioning; sex effect.