Implication of individual differences in glucocorticoid responsiveness to stress in the development of psychopathology-like behaviour and underlying neurobiology

The period around puberty is a critical window in development. It is a time of neuroendocrine and neuroanatomical lability, rendering individuals highly sensitive to stress. Indeed, early adversity increases risk for psychopathology. The mechanisms via which this vulnerability is differentially translated between individuals are not yet understood. Wistar rats exposed to psychogenic stressors around puberty show increased psychopathology-like behaviors at adulthood. Like humans, not all rats exposed to this stress develop in the same way, particularly with regard to aggression. The actions of glucocorticoids, the end product of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activations, mediate some alterations induced by peripuberty stress (PPS). Here we thus focused on assessing if individual differences in glucocorticoid responsiveness to stress influenced outcome following stress. We exposed male rats to PPS and later measured socio-affective behaviors and brain structure with magnetic resonance imaging. By applying a profiling approach we discerned two distinct neurodevelopmental trajectories arising from PPS. One led to the development of pathological aggression and reduced mean diffusivity in infralimbic cortex, amygdala and hippocampus. The other led to increased anxiety-like behavior and reduced sociability, with no evidence of alterations in brain structure. We assessed glucocorticoid responsiveness to PPS across the protocol and found that impaired habituation was associated with a more aggressive profile. Impaired habituation of glucocorticoid responses, shown by ≈35% of people, is heritable and associated with self-report of psychopathology-related indices. Considering this and our findings, we asked if constitutive differences in habituation to repeated stress were implicated in vulnerability to psychopathology. To answer this question, we developed a new animal model. We selectively bred lines of rats, enriching for stress habituation (“low-line”) and lack of stress habituation (“high-line”). Once the lines were established, we assessed socio-affective behaviors and neuroendocrine phenotype of the rats. High-line rats displayed more aggression, anxiety-like, and depression-like behaviors. High-line rats had a distinct neuroendocrine phenotype, with enhanced corticosterone reactivity to acute stress, but no evidence for general HPA axis hyperactivity, and altered expression of several HPA axis related genes. Finally, we studied the interaction of the two risk factors in the development of behavioral alterations. Low- and high-line rats were exposed to PPS, and socio-affective behaviors and basal activation of the brain were later assessed. Both factors enhanced levels of anxiety-like and aggressive behavior, as well as increasing activity across the prefrontal cortex in a manner that was associated with increased behavioral inhibition. PPS had a differential impact on the lines, enhancing aggression in the stress-habituating low-line but not in the already high-aggressive, high-line rats. In summary, we established incidence of differential neurobehavioral trajectories following PPS, trajectories associated with differential glucocorticoid responsiveness across the stress. Constitutively impaired stress habituation increased psychopathology-like behavior in its own right, and this was not enhanced by exposure to PPS. In contrast, constitutively strong habituation enhanced sensitivity to the programming effects of PPS.


Related material