Adolescent environmental enrichment prevents behavioral and physiological sequelae of adolescent chronic stress in female (but not male) rats

<p>The late adolescent period is characterized by marked neurodevelopmental and endocrine fluctuations in the transition to early adulthood. Adolescents are highly responsive to the external environment, which enhances their ability to adapt and recover from challenges when given nurturing influences, but also makes them vulnerable to aberrant development when exposed to prolonged adverse situations. Female rats are particularly sensitive to the effects of chronic stress in adolescence, which manifests as passive coping strategies and blunted hypothalamo-pituitary adrenocortical (HPA) stress responses in adulthood. We sought to intervene by exposing adolescent rats to environmental enrichment (EE) immediately prior to and during chronic stress, hypothesizing that EE would minimize or prevent the long-term effects of stress that emerge in adult females. To test this, we exposed male and female rats to EE on postnatal days (PND) 33–60 and implemented chronic variable stress (CVS) on PND 40–60. CVS consisted of twice-daily unpredictable stressors. Experimental groups included: CVS/unenriched, unstressed/EE, CVS/EE and unstressed/unenriched (<i>n</i> = 10 of each sex/group). In adulthood, we measured behavior in the open field test and forced swim test (FST) and collected blood samples following the FST. We found that environmental enrichment given during the adolescent period prevented the chronic stress-induced transition to passive coping in the FST and reversed decreases in peak adrenocortical responsiveness observed in adult females. Adolescent enrichment had little to no effect on males or unstressed females tested in adulthood, indicating that beneficial effects are specific to females that were exposed to chronic stress.</p>