Dissociation in the effects of neonatal maternal separations on maternal care and the offspring’s HPA and fear responses in rats.
The development of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) response to stress is influenced by the early mother–infant relationship. In rats, early handling (brief daily mother–offspring separations) attenuates the adult offspring’s HPA and fear responses compared to both nonhandling (no separations) and maternal separation (prolonged daily separations). It has been proposed that variation in the amount of maternal care mediates these effects of neonatal manipulations on the adult offspring’s stress and fear responses. Here we tested this hypothesis by assessing maternal care and the adult offspring’s HPA and fear responses in Lister hooded rats which were subjected to either early handling (EH) or maternal separation (MS) from postnatal day 1–13, or were left completely undisturbed (nonhandled, NH) throughout this period. Both EH and MS induced a more active nursing style and elevated levels of maternal care compared to NH. Total levels of maternal care were indistinguishable between EH and MS, but diurnal distribution differed. MS dams showed elevated levels of maternal care following the 4-h separation period, thereby fully compensating for the amount of maternal care provided by EH dams during the time MS dams were separated from their pups. However, while EH resulted in reduced HPA and fear responses in the adult offspring compared to NH, MS and NH offspring did not differ. Our findings therefore demonstrate dissociation in the effects of EH and MS on maternal care and on the stress and fear responses in the offspring. This indicates that maternal care cannot be the sole mediator of these effects.