Disambiguating the Effects of Social Instability Stress in Adolescence on Learning and Memory Tasks that Involve the Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Hippocampus
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Exposure to chronic stress can alter the structure and function of brain regions involved in learning and memory, and these effects are typically long-lasting if the stress occurs during sensitive periods of development. Until recently, adolescence has received relatively little attention as a sensitive period of development, despite marked changes in behaviour, heightened reactivity to stressors, and cognitive and neural maturation. Therefore, the purpose of the present study was to investigate the long-term effects of chronic stress in adolescence on two spatial learning and memory tasks (Morris water maze and Spatial Object Location test) and on a working memory task (Delayed Alternation task). Male rats were randomly assigned to chronic social instability stress (SS; daily 1 hour isolation and subsequent change of cage partner between postnatal days 30 and 45) or to a no-stress control group (CTL). During acquisition learning in the Morris water maze task, SS rats demonstrated impaired long-term memory for the location of the hidden escape platform compared to CTL rats, although the impairment was only seen after the first day of training. Similarly, SS rats had impaired long-term memory in the Spatial Object Location test after a long delay (240 minutes), but not after shorter delays (15 or 60 minutes) compared to CTL rats. On the Delayed Alternation task, which assessed working memory across delays ranging from 5 to 90 seconds, no group differences were observed. These results are partially in line with previous research that revealed adult impairment on spatial learning and memory tasks after exposure to chronic social instability stress in adolescence. The observed deficits, however, appear to be limited to long-term memory as no group differences were observed during brief periods of retention.