Adolescent oxytocin administration reduces depression-like behaviour induced by early life stress in adult male and female rats

Jade L. Thornton, Nicholas A. Everett, Paige Webb, Anita J. Turner, Jennifer L. Cornish, Sarah J. Baracz*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Early life stress (ELS) exposure alters brain development, increasing vulnerability for mental illness in adulthood, including depression. Despite this association, there are no approved pharmacotherapies to protect against the emergence of mental illness resulting from ELS. Recent preclinical work showed that oxytocin (OT) administration in adulthood reduced depressive-like behaviour in male rats with a history of ELS. However, the ability of an OT treatment regime in adolescence, a critical developmental window for the OT system, to prevent the expression of depressive-like behaviours following ELS has not been investigated. Therefore, the present study aimed to determine whether chronic OT administration can ameliorate the enduring effects of ELS on depressive-like behaviours in both male and female rats. Following birth, Long Evans rat pups (N = 107) underwent maternal separation (MS) for either 15 min (MS15) or 6 h (MS360) on postnatal days (PND) 1–21. During adolescence (PND 28–42), rats received a daily injection of either OT (1 mg/kg) or saline. During adulthood (PND 57 onwards), effort-related motivation was measured using a model of effortful choice (EC), while behavioural despair was measured using the forced swim test (FST). Lastly, body and organ weights were measured to examine the physiological impacts of ELS and chronic OT administration. Overall, in both sexes, MS360 increased behavioural despair yet had no impact on effort-related motivation. Importantly, adolescent OT administration prevented the MS360-induced increase in behavioural despair in both males and females. Additionally, MS360 resulted in persistent reductions in body weight in both sexes post-weaning and increased spleen weight in males and adrenal weight in females. OT treatment had no impact on body weight in either sex, but prevented the MS-induced increase in adrenal gland weight in females. Overall, these findings have important implications for using oxytocin as a preventative pharmacotherapy after ELS.

Original languageEnglish
Article number110279
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalProgress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Research supported by internal funding from Macquarie University .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • maternal separation
  • early life stress
  • adolescence
  • depression
  • oxytocin


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