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Early Life Adversity in Male Mice Sculpts Reward Circuits


Early life adversity (ELA) comprises a wide variety of negative experiences during early life and has been linked to cognitive impairments, reduced experiences of pleasure (anhedonia), and other long-term consequences implying that ELA impacts the reward circuitry. In this study, we focused on the projections from the dorsal raphe (DR) to the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and on to the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), an important pathway within the reward circuit. We hypothesized that ELA alters connectivity within the DR-VTA- NAcc pathway, manifested behaviorally as anhedonia in adulthood. We used the limited bedding and nesting model to induce ELA in mice and measured reward-related behaviors in adulthood using the three-chamber social interaction and sucrose preference tests. High resolution ex vivo diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) was acquired and processed for regional DTI metrics, including tractography to assess circuit organization. We found brain-wide changes in radial diffusivity (RD) and altered connectivity of the reward circuit in the ELA group. DR-VTA-NAcc circuit tractography and axial diffusivity (AD) along this tract exhibited dispersed organization where AD was increased in the VTA segment. Behaviorally, ELA elicited an anhedonic phenotype in adulthood with decreased direct social approach and time spent with peer but no overt differences in sucrose preference test. Our findings suggest that reward circuits, assessed using DTI, are altered following ELA and that these changes may drive enduring reward deficits.

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