Infant stress exposure produces persistent enhancement of fear learning across development

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In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that early life stress experiences persistently impact subsequent physiological, cognitive, and emotional responses. In cases of trauma, these early experiences can result in anxiety disorders such as phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder. In the present paper, we examined the effects of infant footshock stress exposure at postnatal day (PND) 17 on subsequent contextual fear conditioning at postnatal days 18 (Experiment 1), 24 (Experiment 2), or 90 (Experiment 3). In each experiment, PND17 footshock stress exposure enhanced later fear conditioning, indicating that the stress enhancement of fear learning (SEFL) persists throughout development. Memory for the original stress exposure context was gradually forgotten, with significant fear expression evident at PND20, and a complete lack of fear expression in that same context at PND90. These data suggest that the stress‐enhancing component of infant fear learning is dissociable from the infant contextual fear memory per se. In other words, early life stress produces persistent effects on subsequent cognition that are independent of the memory for that early life event.



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