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Coping with the Stress

Mice exposed to stressors early in life not only can be more resilient as adults, they also appear to undergo epigenetic changes that can be passed on to the next generation, Swiss researchers report in Nature Communications.

Isabelle Mansuy from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and her colleagues exposed newborn mice to unpredictable maternal separation combined with unpredictable maternal stress. Such early life stress led to behavioral flexibility, goal-directed behaviors and reversal learning in the mice later in life, they add, noting that other, negative effects are also prominent.

"If we look at the whole behavior of these animals, the benefit is really a very small proportion of the effects," Mansuy tells the Los Angeles Times. "Most other effects are fairly negative, because the animals are depressed, are antisocial, and have cognitive impairment."

These behaviors were also associated with epigenetic alterations at, and a decreased expression in the hippocampus of, the mineralocorticoid receptor gene. That epigenetic change was also present in the sperm cells of male mice that endured that stressor, indicating that the effect could be passed along to their offspring.