Intact maternal buffering of stress response in infant rats despite altered responsivity towards maternal olfactory cues in the valproic acid model of autism-like behavior
Disrupted processing of social cues and altered social behaviors are among the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), and they emerge as early as the first year of life. These differences in sensory abilities may affect the ability of children with ASDs to securely attach to a caregiver and experience caregiver buffering of stress. Prenatal exposure to valproic acid (VPA) has been used to model some aspects of ASDs in rodents. Here, we asked whether prenatal VPA exposure altered
... nt rats' behavioral responsivity to maternal olfactory cues in an odor preference test and affected maternal buffering of infants' stress responsivity to shock. In the odor preference test, one-week old rats treated with VPA during pregnancy appeared to have impaired social recognition and/or may be less motivated to approach social odors in early infancy. These effects were particularly prominent in female pups. In two-week old rats, VPA-exposed pups and saline-exposed pups showed similar preferences for home cage bedding. Although VPA-exposed pups may initially have a deficit in this attachment-related behavior they do recover typical responses to home cage bedding in later infancy. Both control and VPA-exposed pups showed robust stress hormone responses to repeated shocks, an effect which was blocked when a calm mother was present during shock exposure. No sex differences in the effect of maternal presence on the stress response to shock and no interactions between sex and prenatal drug exposure were observed. Although VPA-exposed pups may show impaired responsivity to maternal cues in early infancy, maternal presence is still capable of regulating the stress response in VPA-exposed pups. In this study we demonstrate the importance of utilizing multiple batteries of tests in assessing behavior, dissecting the behavior on one test into different components. Our results inform about the underlying behavioral characteristics of some of the ASD phenotypes, including sex differences reported by clinical studies, and could shed light on potential opportunities for intervention.