Journal article

Individual differences in anxiety trait are related to spatial learning abilities and hippocampal expression of mineralocorticoid receptors

Although high levels of anxiety might be expected to negatively influence learning and memory, it remains to be shown whether individual differences in anxiety may influence spatial learning and memory in outbred rat populations. We have studied this possibility in male Wistar rats whose levels of anxiety were first characterized as either high (HA) or low (LA) according to their behavior in the elevated plus maze or in the open field test. Subsequently, their performance in the Morris water maze was studied, a task dependent on hippocampal activity. Interestingly, LA rats showed a faster acquisition and better memory in the water maze when compared to HA rats. Indeed, this difference in performance could mainly be attributed to the increase in thigmotactic behavior (swimming in circles close to the maze walls) displayed by HA rats during spatial navigation. Glucocorticoids are known to affect the state of anxiety and the hippocampus is the main target of glucocorticoids in the brain. Hence, we investigated whether the hippocampal expression of the two classical corticosteroid receptors, mineralocorticoid (MR) and glucocorticoid (GR) differed in the two groups of rats. We found that LA rats displayed higher hippocampal expression of MR but not GR than HA rats. Indeed, the expression levels for these receptors were positively correlated with the amount of time spent by the animals in the open arms of the elevated plus maze. Moreover, we present evidence that the levels of anxiety quantified in the first stages of our study constitute a trait rather than a state. Taken together, this study has generated evidence of a close interaction between the anxiety trait, hippocampal MR expression and the learning abilities of individuals in stressful spatial orientation tasks.


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