Exposure of pregnant rats to stress results in offspring that exhibit abnormally fearful behavior and have elevated neuroendocrine responses to novelty and aversive stimuli. This study examined the effects of prenatal stress on plasma corticosterone, adrenal weight, defensive withdrawal behavior, and the density of receptors for corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) in the amygdala. Pregnant Sprague-Dawley rats were stressed by daily handling and saline injection (s.c., 0.9%, 0.1 mL) during the last week of gestation. Male offspring were studied at adulthood (60-120 days of age). Adrenal hypertrophy and increased plasma corticosterone were observed in the prenatally stressed offspring. Defensive withdrawal, an ethological measure of the conflict between exploratory behavior and retreat, was quantified in naive offspring, and in offspring exposed to restraint stress (2 h). Restraint stress increased defensive withdrawal in both control and prenatally stressed offspring. Both naive and restraint-stressed prenatally stressed offspring exhibited increased defensive withdrawal compared to control offspring. There was a significant interaction between prenatal stress and restraint stress, suggesting increased vulnerability of prenatally stressed offspring. The effects of restraint in the defensive withdrawal test were reduced by intracerebroventricular administration of the CRF antagonists, alpha-helical CRF9-41 (20 microg every hour) or D-phe(12), Nle(21, 38), C(alpha)-MeLeu(37)]-CRF((12-41)) (5 microg every hour) during the restraint period. The difference between control and prenatally stressed offspring was abolished by the CRF antagonists, suggesting that increased activation of CRF receptors may be a factor in the behavioral abnormalities of prenatally stressed rats. Measurement of CRF receptors in amygdala revealed a 2.5-fold increase in binding in prenatally stressed offspring. In light of previous work from this laboratory demonstrating increased content and release of CRF in amygdala from prenatally stressed offspring, the present study suggests that the increased fearfulness of prenatally stressed rats may be a consequence of increased activity of CRFergic systems in the amygdala.
Chronic Stress Laboratory, Toxicology and Molecular Biology Branch, Health Effects Laboratory Division, CDC-NIOSH, 1095 Willowdale Road, Morgantown, WV 26505