Prenatal stress has been associated with detrimental outcomes of pregnancy, including altered brain development leading to behavioural pathologies. The neurosteroid allopregnanolone has been implicated in mediating some of these adverse outcomes following prenatal stress due to its potent inhibitory and anxiolytic effects on the brain. The aims of the current study were to characterise key markers for brain development as well as behavioural parameters, adrenocortical responses to handling and possible neurosteroid influences towards outcomes in guinea pig offspring in childhood. Pregnant guinea pig dams were exposed to strobe light for 2 h (9-11 a.m.) on gestational days 50, 55, 60, and 65 and were left to deliver spontaneously at term and care for their litter. Behavioural testing (open-field test, object exploration test) of the offspring was performed at postnatal day 18 (with salivary cortisol and DHEA measured), and brains were collected at post-mortem on day 21. Markers of brain development myelin basic protein (MBP) and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) were assessed via immunohistochemistry, and the neurosteroid allopregnanolone and its rate-limiting enzymes 5alpha-reductase types 1 and 2 (5alphaR1/2) were measured in neonatal brains by radioimmunoassay, reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), and Western blot, respectively. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor protein was measured as a marker of synaptic plasticity, and GABAA receptor subunit expression was also assessed using RT-PCR. Neonates born from mothers stressed during late pregnancy showed a reduction in both MBP (p <0.01) and GFAP (p <0.05) expression in the CA1 region of the hippocampus at 21 days of age. Pups of prenatally stressed pregnancies also showed higher levels of anxiety and neophobic behaviours at the equivalent of childhood (p <0.05). There were no significant changes observed in allopregnanolone levels, 5alphaR1/2 expression, or GABAA receptor subunit expression in prenatally stressed neonates compared to controls. This study shows alterations in markers of myelination and reactive astrocytes in the hippocampus of offspring exposed to prenatal stress. These changes are also observed in offspring that show increased anxiety behaviours at the equivalent of childhood, which indicates ongoing structural and functional postnatal changes after prenatal stress exposure.
Bennett, G. A., Palliser, H. K., Shaw, J. C., Walker, D. W., & Hirst, J. (2015). Prenatal stress alters hippocampal neuroglia and increases anxiety in childhood. Developmental Neuroscience, 37(6), 533 - 545. https://doi.org/10.1159/000437302