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Single-Cell Transcriptional Changes in Hypothalamic Corticotropin-Releasing Factor–Expressing Neurons After Early-Life Adversity Inform Enduring Alterations in Vulnerabilities to Stress



Mental health and vulnerabilities to neuropsychiatric disorders involve the interplay of genes and environment, particularly during sensitive developmental periods. Early-life adversity (ELA) and stress promote vulnerabilities to stress-related affective disorders, yet it is unknown how transient ELA dictates lifelong neuroendocrine and behavioral reactions to stress. The population of hypothalamic corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF)-expressing neurons that regulate stress responses is a promising candidate to mediate the long-lasting influences of ELA on stress-related behavioral and hormonal responses via enduring transcriptional and epigenetic mechanisms.


Capitalizing on a well-characterized model of ELA, we examined ELA-induced changes in gene expression profiles of CRF-expressing neurons in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus of developing male mice. We used single-cell RNA sequencing on isolated CRF-expressing neurons. We determined the enduring functional consequences of transcriptional changes on stress reactivity in adult ELA mice, including hormonal responses to acute stress, adrenal weights as a measure of chronic stress, and behaviors in the looming shadow threat task.


Single-cell transcriptomics identified distinct and novel CRF-expressing neuronal populations, characterized by both their gene expression repertoire and their neurotransmitter profiles. ELA-provoked expression changes were selective to specific subpopulations and affected genes involved in neuronal differentiation, synapse formation, energy metabolism, and cellular responses to stress and injury. Importantly, these expression changes were impactful, apparent from adrenal hypertrophy and augmented behavioral responses to stress in adulthood.


We uncover a novel repertoire of stress-regulating CRF cell types differentially affected by ELA and resulting in augmented stress vulnerability, with relevance to the origins of stress-related affective disorders.

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