Mechanisms of Context Conditioning in the Developing Rat

Mark E Stanton, Nathen J Murawski, Sarah A Jablonski, Patrese A Robinson-Drummer, Nicholas A Heroux
Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 2021 January 19, : 107388
The article reviews our studies of contextual fear conditioning (CFC) in rats during a period of development---Postnatal Day (PND) 17-33---that represents the late-infant, juvenile, and early-adolescent stages. These studies seek to acquire 'systems level' knowledge of brain and memory development and apply it to a rodent model of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). This rodent model focuses on alcohol exposure from PND4-9, a period of brain development equivalent to the human third trimester, when neocortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum are especially vulnerable to adverse effects of alcohol. Our research emphasizes a variant of CFC, termed the Context Preexposure Facilitation Effect (CPFE, Fanselow, 1990), in which context representations incidentally learned on one occasion are retrieved and associated with immediate shock on a subsequent occasion. These representations can be encoded at the earliest developmental stage but seem not to be retained or retrieved until the juvenile period. This is associated with developmental differences in context-elicited expression, in prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala, of immediate early genes (IEGs) that are implicated in long-term memory. Loss-of-function studies establish a functional role for these regions as soon as the CPFE emerges during ontogeny. In our rodent model of FASD, the CPFE is much more sensitive to alcohol dose than other commonly used cognitive tasks. This impairment can be reversed by acute administration during behavioral testing of drugs that enhance cholinergic function. This effect is associated with normalized IEG expression in prefrontal cortex during incidental context learning. In summary, our findings suggest that long-term memory of incidentally-learned context representations depends on prefrontal-hippocampal circuitry that is important both for the normative development of context conditioning and for its disruption by developmental alcohol exposure.

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