Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Irvine

UC Irvine Previously Published Works bannerUC Irvine

Social isolation and chronic handling alter endocannabinoid signaling and behavioral reactivity to context in adult rats.


Social deprivation in early life disrupts emotionality and attentional processes in humans. Rearing rats in isolation reproduces some of these abnormalities, which are attenuated by daily handling. However, the neurochemical mechanisms underlying these responses remain poorly understood. We hypothesized that post-weaning social isolation alters the endocannabinoid system, a neuromodulatory system that controls emotional responding. We characterized behavioral consequences of social isolation and evaluated whether handling would reverse social isolation-induced alterations in behavioral reactivity to context and the endocannabinoid system. At weaning, pups were single or group housed and concomitantly handled or not handled daily until adulthood. Rats were tested in emotionality- and attentional-sensitive behavioral assays (open field, elevated plus maze, startle and prepulse inhibition). Cannabinoid receptor densities and endocannabinoid levels were quantified in a separate group of rats. Social isolation negatively altered behavioral responding. Socially-isolated rats that were handled showed less deficits in the open field, elevated plus maze, and prepulse inhibition tests. Social isolation produced site-specific alterations (supraoptic nucleus, ventrolateral thalamus, rostral striatum) in cannabinoid receptor densities compared to group rearing. Handling altered the endocannabinoid system in neural circuitry controlling emotional expression. Handling altered endocannabinoid content (prefrontal and piriform cortices, nucleus accumbens) and cannabinoid receptor densities (lateral globus pallidus, cingulate and piriform cortices, hippocampus) in a region-specific manner. Some effects of social isolation on the endocannabinoid system were moderated by handling. Isolates were unresponsive to handling-induced increases in cannabinoid receptor densities (caudal striatum, anterior thalamus), but were sensitive to handling-induced changes in endocannabinoid content (piriform, prefrontal cortices), compared to group-reared rats. Our findings suggest alterations in the endocannabinoid system may contribute to the abnormal isolate phenotype. Handling modifies the endocannabinoid system and behavioral reactivity to context, but surmounts only some effects of social isolation. These data implicate a pivotal role for the endocannabinoid system in stress adaptation and emotionality-related disturbances.

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View