Environmental enrichment (EE) has beneficial neurobiological, physiological and behavioral effects. The purpose of the present paper is to review the animal research literature pertaining to the impact of EE on altering physiological and behavioral anxiety outcomes. Evidence supports the view that EE attenuates responses to certain anxiety provoking situations, and that these effects persist over time. Specifically, EE attenuates behavioral anxiety-type responses and endocrine responses mediated via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis evoked by psychogenic and/or neurogenic stressors. EE is not only able to protect from excessive anxiety in response to a present stressor, but also attenuates the enduring or persistent effects engendered by past psychogenic stressor(s) such as prenatal stress or neonatal maternal separation. It is noteworthy that the protective effects of EE are particularly apparent in animals that are highly anxious or when the task is highly challenging for the subject. Various mechanisms of action of EE have been proposed, ranging from behavioral/cognitive to cellular/molecular processes. A pronounced variability in the enrichment protocols used by different investigators may account for some of the inconsistencies noted in the effect of EE on behavioral (e.g. anxiety) and endocrine (e.g. plasma corticosterone) responses. Although the occasional inconsistencies highlight the need for further research, a preponderance of the animal research data indicates that EE exerts therapeutic and protective (anxiolytic) effects against (a) impending threat, (b) enduring effects of past stressor(s) and (c) subsequent stressors.
- Environmental enrichment
- Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis