Journal article

Structural and functional alterations in the prefrontal cortex after post-weaning social isolation: relationship with species-typical and deviant aggression

Although the inhibitory control of aggression by the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the cornerstone of current theories of aggression control, a number of human and laboratory studies showed that the execution of aggression increases PFC activity; moreover, enhanced activation was observed in aggression-related psychopathologies and laboratory models of abnormal aggression. Here, we investigated these apparently contradictory findings in the post-weaning social isolation paradigm (PWSI), an established laboratory model of abnormal aggression. When studied in the resident-intruder test as adults, rats submitted to PWSI showed increased attack counts, increased share of bites directed towards vulnerable body parts of opponents (head, throat, and belly) and reduced social signaling of attacks. These deviations from species-typical behavioral characteristics were associated with a specific reduction in the thickness of the right medial PFC (mPFC), a bilateral decrease in dendritic and glial density, and reduced vascularization on the right-hand side of the mPFC. Thus, the early stressor interfered with mPFC development. Despite these structural deficits, aggressive encounters enhanced the activation of the mPFC in PWSI rats as compared to controls. A voxel-like functional analysis revealed that overactivation was restricted to a circumscribed sub-region, which contributed to the activation of hypothalamic centers involved in the initiation of biting attacks as shown by structural equation modeling. These findings demonstrate that structural alterations and functional hyperactivity can coexist in the mPFC of rats exposed to early stressors, and suggest that the role of the mPFC in aggression control is more complex than suggested by the inhibitory control theory.


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