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Maternal social environment affects offspring cognition through behavioral and immune pathways in rats

Pittet, F and Van Caenegem, N and Hicks‐Nelson, A and Santos, HP and Bradburn, S and Murgatroyd, C and Nephew, BC (2019) Maternal social environment affects offspring cognition through behavioral and immune pathways in rats. Journal of Neuroendocrinology. e12711-e12711. ISSN 0953-8194

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Abstract

The social environment of lactation is a key etiological factor for the occurrence of postpartum disorders affecting women and their children. Postpartum depression and anxiety disorders are highly prevalent in new mothers and negatively affect offspring's cognitive development through mechanisms which are still unclear. Here, using a rat model, we manipulated the maternal social environment during lactation and explored the pathways through which social isolation (vs. the opportunity for limited social interaction with another lactating female, from 1 day before parturition to postpartum day 16) and chronic social conflict (daily exposure to a male intruder from postpartum day 2 to day 16) affect offspring learning and memory, measured at 40 to 60 days of age. We specifically explored the consequences of these social treatments on two main hypothesized mediators likely to affect offspring neurophysiological development: the quality of maternal care and maternal inflammation factors (BDNF, GM‐CSF, ICAM‐1, TIMP‐1 and VEGF) likely to influence offspring development through lactation. Maternal rats which had the opportunity to interact with another lactating female spent more time with their pups which, in turn, displayed improved working and reference memory. Social stress affected maternal plasma levels of cytokines that were associated with cognitive deficits in their offspring. However, females subjected to social stress were protected from these stress‐induced immune changes and associated offspring cognitive impairment by increased social affiliation. These results underscore the effects of social interaction for new mothers and their offspring and can be used to inform the development of clinical preventative measures and interventions.

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