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Down-regulation of hypothalamic corticotropin-releasing hormone messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) precedes early-life experience-induced changes in hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor mRNA.


Early-life experiences, including maternal interaction, profoundly influence hormonal stress responses during adulthood. In rats, daily handling during a critical neonatal period leads to a significant and permanent modulation of key molecules that govern hormonal secretion in response to stress. Thus, hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor (GR) expression is increased, whereas hypothalamic CRH-messenger RNA (mRNA) levels and stress-induced glucocorticoid release are reduced in adult rats handled early in life. Recent studies have highlighted the role of augmented maternal sensory input to handled rats as a key determinant of these changes. However, the molecular mechanisms, and particularly the critical, early events leading from enhanced sensory experience to long-lasting modulation of GR and CRH gene expression, remain largely unresolved. To elucidate the critical primary genes governing this molecular cascade, we determined the sequence of changes in GR-mRNA levels and in hypothalamic and amygdala CRH-mRNA expression at three developmental ages, and the temporal relationship between each of these changes and the emergence of reduced hormonal stress-responses. Down-regulation of hypothalamic CRH-mRNA levels in daily-handled rats was evident already by postnatal day 9, and was sustained through postnatal days 23 and 45, i.e. beyond puberty. In contrast, handling-related up-regulation of hippocampal GR-mRNA expression emerged subsequent to the 23rd postnatal day, i.e. much later than changes in hypothalamic CRH expression. The hormonal stress response of handled rats was reduced starting before postnatal day 23. These findings indicate that early, rapid, and persistent changes of hypothalamic CRH gene expression may play a critical role in the mechanism(s) by which early-life experience influences the hormonal stress-response long-term.

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