Environmental Enrichment Protects Against the Effects of Chronic Stress on Cognitive and Morphological Measures of Hippocampal Integrity

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Environmental enrichment, Hippocampus, Spatial learning, Reference memory, Stress, Working memory

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Chronic stress has detrimental effects on hippocampal integrity, while environmental enrichment (EE) has beneficial effects when initiated early in development. In this study, we investigated whether EE initiated in adulthood would mitigate chronic stress effects on cognitive function and hippocampal neuronal architecture, when EE started one week before chronic stress began, or two weeks after chronic stress onset. Adult male Sprague Dawley rats were chronically restrained (6 h/d) or assigned as non-stressed controls and subdivided into EE or non-EE housing. After restraint ended, rats were tested on a radial arm water maze (RAWM) for 2-d to assess spatial learning and memory. The first study showed that when EE began prior to 3-weeks of chronic stress, EE attenuated chronic stress-induced impairments in acquisition, which corresponded with the prevention of chronic stress-induced reductions in CA3 apical dendritic length. A second study showed that when EE began 2-weeks after the onset of a 5-week stress regimen, EE blocked chronic stress-induced impairments in acquisition and retention at 1-h and 24-h delays. RAWM performance corresponded with CA3 apical dendritic complexity. Moreover, rats in EE housing (control or stress) exhibited similar corticosterone profiles across weeks, which differed from the muted corticosterone response to restraint by the chronically stressed pair-housed rats. These data support the interpretation that chronic stress and EE may act on similar mechanisms within the hippocampus, and that manipulation of these factors may yield new directions for optimizing brain integrity and resilience under chronic stress or stress related neuropsychological disorders in the adult.

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Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, v. 97, issue 2, p. 250-260