Exercise reverses the effects of early life stress on orexin cell reactivity in male but not female rats

Morgan H. James, Erin J. Campbell, Frederick R. Walker, Doug W. Smith, Heather N. Richardson, Deborah M. Hodgson, Christopher V. Dayas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Early life stress (ELS) is a known antecedent for the development of mood disorders such as depression. Orexin neurons drive arousal and motivated behaviors in response to stress. We tested the hypothesis that ELS alters orexin system function and leads to an altered stress-induced behavioral phenotype in adulthood. We also investigated if voluntary exercise during adolescent development could reverse the ELS-induced changes. Male and female Wistar rats were subjected to maternal separation stress on postnatal days (PND) 2-14. A subset of animals was given access to running wheels in late adolescence (1hr/day, PND40-70). In adulthood, rats were exposed to restraint stress and then tested on the open field (OF) and elevated plus maze (EPM). Brains were processed for Fos-protein and orexin or tyrosine hydroxylase immunohistochemistry. Restraint stress stimulated Fos-protein expression in perifornical area orexin cells, the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus, and paraventricular thalamic nuclei, but this neuronal response was dampened in male and female rats exposed to ELS. ELS also reduced exploration in the OF, without affecting EPM behavior. These neural and behavioral changes are consistent with a depressive-like phenotype. Adolescent exercise reversed the orexin and behavioral deficits in ELS males. Exercise was not protective in females, although this may be due to sex differences in running behavior. Our findings highlight the inherent plasticity of the orexin system-a trait that may lead to a state of pathological rewiring but could also be treated using non-pharmacological approaches. We also highlight a need to better understand the sex-specific changes in orexin circuits and stress-related pathology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number244
JournalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue numberJULY
StatePublished - Jul 23 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Exercise
  • Hypocretin
  • Hypothalamus
  • Maternal separation
  • Orexin
  • Plasticity
  • Sex-differences
  • Stress


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