Altered corticolimbic connectivity reveals sex-specific adolescent outcomes in a rat model of early life adversity

  1. Jennifer A Honeycutt Is a corresponding author
  2. Camila Demaestri
  3. Shayna Peterzell
  4. Marisa M Silveri
  5. Xuezhu Cai
  6. Praveen Kulkarni
  7. Miles G Cunningham
  8. Craig F Ferris
  9. Heather C Brenhouse Is a corresponding author
  1. Northeastern University, United States; 
  2. McLean Hospital, United States; 
  3. Harvard Medical School, United States

 Jan 20, 2020

Cite this article as: eLife 2020;9:e52651 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.52651


Exposure to early-life adversity (ELA) increases the risk for psychopathologies associated with amygdala-prefrontal cortex (PFC) circuits. While sex differences in vulnerability have been identified with a clear need for individualized intervention strategies, the neurobiological substrates of ELA-attributable differences remain unknown due to a paucity of translational investigations taking both development and sex into account. Male and female rats exposed to maternal separation ELA were analyzed with anterograde tracing from basolateral amygdala (BLA) to PFC to identify sex-specific innervation trajectories through juvenility (PD28) and adolescence (PD38;PD48). Resting-state functional connectivity (rsFC) was assessed longitudinally (PD28;PD48) in a separate cohort. All measures were related to anxiety-like behavior. ELA-exposed rats showed precocial maturation of BLA-PFC innervation, with females affected earlier than males. ELA also disrupted maturation of female rsFC, with enduring relationships between rsFC and anxiety-like behavior. This study is the first providing both anatomical and functional evidence for sex- and experience-dependent corticolimbic development.

Having a traumatic childhood increases the risk a person will develop anxiety disorders later in life. Early life adversity affects men and women differently, but scientists do not yet know why. Learning more could help scientists develop better ways to prevent or treat anxiety disorders in men and women who experienced childhood trauma.

Anxiety occurs when threat-detecting brain circuits turn on. These circuits begin working in infancy, and during childhood and adolescence, experiences shape the brain to hone the body’s responses to perceived threats. Two areas of the brain that are important hubs for anxiety-related brain circuits include the basolateral amygdala (BLA) and the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

Now, Honeycutt et al. show that rats that experience early life adversity develop stronger connections between the BLA and PFC, and these changes occur earlier in female rats. In the experiments, one group of rats was repeatedly separated from their mothers and littermates (an early life trauma), while a second group was not. Honeycutt et al. examined the connections between the BLA and PFC in the two groups at three different time periods during their development: the juvenile stage, early adolescence, and late adolescence.

The experiments showed stronger connections between the BLA and PFC begin to appear earlier in juvenile traumatized female rats. But these changes did not appear in their male counterparts until adolescence. Lastly, the rats that developed these strengthened BLA-PFC connections also behaved more anxiously later in life. This may mean that the ideal timing for interventions may be different for males and females. More work is needed to see if these results translate to humans and then to find the best times and methods to help people who experienced childhood trauma.

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About S. R. Zelenz 119 Articles
S.R. Zelenz has worked in education for 20 years. Working with students from all walks of life, cultures, races, and social diversity, Zelenz’s research in Educational Leadership led to finding a better way to approach learning for students with trauma histories. Many were juvenile offenders, gang members, diagnosed with varying behavioral disorders, or had family histories of violence, murder, or narcissistic parenting. This research could not be effectively accomplished without further understanding: how epigenetic trauma inheritance may be impacting these students; how brain development from trauma may be impacting their behavioral and emotional development; as well as deep understanding of psychology and its varying classifications for behavioral and personality disorders. The goal is to find solutions for changing the conversation and making a real difference for these students. She has also worked with nonprofits of varying focus areas for the last 25 years. Her undergraduate degree in Arts Administration and Music prepared her for managing nonprofits of any size as well as procuring funding so that they can achieve their goals. Pairing her nonprofit background with her education background, she has been able to make a difference for over 200 nonprofits worldwide, written curriculum for schools across the globe, and assisted many arts organizations through performance and management.