Repeated social stress and the maturation of sexual behavior in juvenile male golden hamsters
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In certain species, puberty is thought to be a period of susceptibility to various stressors, resulting in pathological behavioral and physiological changes subsequent to exposure during this period. However, juvenile male golden hamsters appear to be fairly resilient to pubertal stress, as compared to adult hamsters and many other species. In these experiments, repeatedly stressed juvenile male hamsters were found to be avoidant of aggressive adult male social stimuli, but did not display anxious behavior outside of a social context. In addition, several long-term changes in neural activity were associated with social stress during early puberty. The medial preoptic area and medial preoptic nucleus, and ventral tegmental area showed decreased neural activity in subjugated juveniles than in naïve individuals. Since these brain areas are involved in the expression of motivated behaviors, specifically sexual behavior, and reward pathways, we next investigated sexual behavior in virgin juveniles. When placed in a confined space with receptive females, consummatory behavior in subjugated juveniles was similar to those observed in naive juveniles. Appetitive aspects of sexual behavior were also tested in a Y-maze to allow subjects to choose whether to approach a social stimulus. When given a choice between a sexually receptive and non-receptive female social stimulus, socially stressed individuals showed anxiety related behaviors and did not show a preference. However, naïve hamsters preferred the non-receptive female. Interestingly, this effect was less significant in naïve animals tested during late puberty and early adulthood, and a preference for sexually receptive females was not observed. In addition, stressed hamsters tested with harnessed females at mid-puberty were slower to approach females, indicating altered motivation to approach adult conspecifics. This research is unique in that it is the first to suggest the disconnect between the development of consummatory and appetitive aspects of sexual behavior. Together, these data examine the effects of stress on the development of pubertal social behaviors.