Early-life experience including maternal care profoundly influences hormonal stress responses during adulthood. Daily handling on postnatal day (P) 2-9, eliciting augmented maternal care upon returning pups to their cage, permanently modifies the expression of the stress neuromodulators corticotropin-releasing factor (CRP) and glucocorticoid receptor (GR). We have previously demonstrated reduced liypothalamic CRF expression already at the end of the handling period, followed by enhanced hippocampal GB mRNA levels (by P45). However, the initial site(s) and time of onset of these enduring changes have remained unclear. Therefore, we used semiquantitative in situ hybridization to delineate the spatiotemporal evolution of CRF and GR expression throughout stress-regulatory brain regions in handled (compared with undisturbed) pups. Enhanced CRF mRNA expression was apparent in the amygdaloid central nucleus (ACe) of handled pups already by P6. By P9, the augmented CRF mRNA levels persisted in ACe, accompanied by increased peptide expression in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and reduced expression in the paraventricular nucleus. The earliest change in GR consisted of reduced expression in the ACe of handled pups on P9, a time point when hippocampal GR expression was not yet affected. Thus, altered gene expression in ACe, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis as well as paraventricular nucleus may contribute to the molecular cascade by which handling (and increased maternal care) influences the stress response long term.
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