Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38(11), 2746-2757.
Exposure to early-life stress is a risk factor for the development of cognitive and emotional disorders later in life. We previously demonstrated that prenatal stress (PNS) in rats results in long-term, stable changes in central stress-response systems and impairs the ability to extinguish conditioned fear responding, a component of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Maternal corticosterone (CORT), released during prenatal stress, is a possible mediator of these effects. The purpose of the present study was to investigate whether fetal exposure to CORT at levels induced by PNS is sufficient to alter the development of adult stress neurobiology and fear extinction behavior. Pregnant dams were subject to either PNS (60 min immobilization/day from ED 14-21) or a daily injection of CORT (10 mg/kg), which approximated both fetal and maternal plasma CORT levels elicited during PNS. Control dams were given injections of oil vehicle. Male offspring were allowed to grow to adulthood undisturbed, at which point they were sacrificed and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), hippocampus, hypothalamus, and a section of the rostral pons containing the locus coeruleus (LC) were dissected. PNS and prenatal CORT treatment decreased glucocorticoid receptor protein levels in the mPFC, hippocampus, and hypothalamus when compared to control offspring. Both treatments also decreased tyrosine hydroxylase levels in the LC. Finally, the effect of prenatal CORTexposure on fear extinction behavior was examined following chronic stress. Prenatal CORT impaired both acquisition and recall of cue-conditioned fear extinction. This effect was additive to the impairment induced by previous chronic stress. Thus, these data suggest that fetal exposure to high levels of maternal CORT is responsible for many of the lasting neurobiological consequences of PNS as they relate to the processes underlying extinction of learned fear. The data further suggest that adverse prenatal environments constitute a risk factor for PTSD-like symptomatology, especially when combined with chronic stressors later in life.
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