Selective Social Buffering of Behavioral and Endocrine Responses and Fos Induction in the Prelimbic Cortex of Infants Exposed to a Novel Environment

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In mammals, the presence of the mother can reduce or “buffer” stress responses of her young in threatening conditions. We compared the effect of the mother, a familiar littermate, and an unfamiliar adult male on three classes of response shown by guinea pig pups in a novel environment: short latency active behaviors, particularly vocalizing; slower developing passive behaviors that appear mediated by inflammatory mechanisms; and hypothalamic‐pituitary‐adrenal activity. We also examined Fos induction in the prelimbic cortex, a region hypothesized to mediate buffering effects. Only the mother significantly suppressed all classes of behavior. The greatest selectivity was observed for passive behavioral responses. Contrary to expectations, the adult male reduced plasma cortisol levels of pups as effectively as did the mother. The presence of the male also resulted in increased Fos induction in the prelimbic cortex and high levels of social interaction. Maternal buffering was not associated with prelimbic activity. These results confirm the ability of the mother to reduce active behavioral and HPA responses and suggest a specific maternal buffering effect on the later developing passive behavioral responses. The findings also demonstrate an unexpected ability of adult males to reduce HPA responses and raise the possibility that different social partners buffer HPA activity through different underlying processes.

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