Early life stress produces compulsive-like, but not impulsive, behavior in females.


Adverse experiences during childhood are associated with the development of psychiatric disorders later in life. In particular, childhood abuse and neglect are risk factors for addictive disorders, such as substance misuse and pathological gambling. Impulsivity and compulsivity are key features of these disorders. Therefore, we investigated whether childhood adversity might increase vulnerability for addictive disorders through promotion of compulsive and impulsive behaviors. Rats were exposed to a brief, variable childhood or prepubertal stress protocol (Postnatal Days 25-27), and their behavior in a delay discounting task was compared with that of control animals in adulthood. Prepubertal stress produced compulsive-type behavior in females. Specifically, stressed females displayed inappropriate responses during a choice phase of the task, perseverating with nosepoke responding instead of choosing between 2 levers. Stressed females also showed learning impairments during task training. However, prepubertal stress was not associated with the development of impulsive behavior, as rates of delay discounting were not affected in either sex. Childhood adversity may contribute to the establishment and maintenance of addictive disorders by increasing perseveration in females. Perseverative behavior may therefore provide a viable therapeutic target for preventing the development of addictive disorders in individuals exposed to childhood adversity. These effects were not seen in males, highlighting sex differences in response to early life stress.