Do early-life events permanently alter behavioral and hormonal responses to stressors?

Hymie Anisman, Marilee D. Zaharia, Michael J. Meaney, Zul Merali

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

563 Citations (Scopus)


Early-life stimulation (e.g. brief handling) attenuates the behavioral and neuroendocrine responses to stressors encountered in adulthood, particularly with respect to activation of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity. In contrast, if neonates were subjected to a more severe stressor, such as protracted separation from the dam or exposure to an endotoxin, then the adult response to a stressor was exaggerated. These early-life experiences program HPA functioning, including negative feedback derived from stimulation of hippocampal glucocorticoid receptors, and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine vasopressin (AVP) coexpression in PVN neurons, to modify the response to subsequent stressor experiences. The persistent variations of HPA activity observed in handled/stimulated animals may stem from alterations in dam-pup interactions (e.g. increased arched-back feeding, licking, grooming). In addition genetic makeup is critical in determining stress reactivity. For instance, BALB/cByJ mice are more reactive to stressors than C57BL/6ByJ mice, exhibiting greater HPA hormonal alterations and behavioral disturbances. BALB/cByJ also fail to acquire a spatial learning response in a Morris water-maze paradigm, which has been shown to be correlated with hippocampal cell loss associated with aging. Early-life handling of BALB/cByJ mice prevented these performance deficits and attenuated the hypersecretion of ACTH and corticosterone elicited by stressors. The stressor reactivity may have been related to maternal and genetic factors. When BALB/cByJ mice were raised by a C57BL/6ByJ dam, the excessive stress-elicited HPA activity was reduced, as were the behavioral impairments. However, cross-fostering the more resilient C57BL/6ByJ mice to a BALB/cByJ dam failed to elicit the behavioral disturbances. It is suggested that genetic factors may influence dam-pup interactive styles and may thus proactively influence the response to subsequent stressors among vulnerable animals. In contrast, in relatively hardy animals the early-life manipulations may have less obvious effects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-164
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Developmental Neuroscience
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - Jun 1998
Externally publishedYes


  • ACTH
  • Corticosterone
  • Corticotropin releasing hormone
  • Handling
  • Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis
  • Maternal separation


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