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The influence of early maternal care on perceptual attentional set shifting and stress reactivity in adult rats

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Stress influences a wide variety of outcomes including cognitive processing. In the rat, early life maternal care can influence developing offspring to affect both stress reactivity and cognitive processes in adulthood. The current study assessed if variations in early life maternal care can influence cognitive performance on a task, the ability to switch cognitive sets, dependent on the medial prefrontal cortex. Early in life, offspring was reared under High or Low maternal Licking conditions. As adults, they were trained daily and then tested on an attentional set-shifting task (ASST), which targets cognitive flexibility in rodents. Stress-sensitive behavioral and neural markers were assayed before and after the ASST. High and Low Licking offspring performed equally well on the ASST despite initial, but not later, differences in stress axis functioning. These results suggest that early life maternal care does not impact the accuracy of attentional set-shifting in rats. These findings may be of particular importance for those interested in the relationship between early life experience and adult cognitive function.

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