Male mice reared in stressful conditions have offspring that display improved goal directed behaviours, due to epigenetic changes, reports a paper published in Nature Communications this week. The findings highlight a potential adaptive benefit of adverse experiences in early life.
Many studies in animals have shown that early life stress, such as maternal separation or reduced bedding, can have negative consequences on behaviour including impaired stress responses, increased behavioural despair and cognitive deficits in adulthood. However in some cases, early stress has been shown to be beneficial by conferring advantages later in life - such as resilience to further stress - but it is unclear whether or not these beneficial effects can be transferred to offspring.
Isabelle Mansuy and colleagues study the effects of repetitive, unpredictable maternal separation and maternal stress, on mice. Specifically, they separated male mouse pups from their mothers and at the same time, subjected the mothers to restraint stress. They then allowed the male pups to mature under the nurturing of their stressed parent. The offspring of these adult male mice showed improvements in goal-directed behaviour and behavioural flexibility, over a range of behavioural tests, compared to control offspring. The authors also find that this is accompanied by epigenetic changes to the mineralocorticoid receptor gene, which has previously been heavily implicated in stress responses.
The authors hope that these findings will lead to novel therapeutic approaches for the treatment of stress-induced disorders such as clinical depression, although more research is needed to better understand the mechanisms that contribute to these effects.