Unstable maternal environment, separation anxiety, and heightened CO2 sensitivity induced by gene-by-environment interplay

Francesca R. D'Amato, Claudio Zanettini, Valentina Lampis, Roberto Coccurello, Tiziana Pascucci, Rossella Ventura, Stefano Puglisi-Allegra, Chiara A M Spatola, Paola Pesenti-Gritti, Diego Oddi, Anna Moles, Marco Battaglia

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Background: In man, many different events implying childhood separation from caregivers/unstable parental environment are associated with heightened risk for panic disorder in adulthood. Twin data show that the occurrence of such events in childhood contributes to explaining the covariation between separation anxiety disorder, panic, and the related psychobiological trait of CO2 hypersensitivity. We hypothesized that early interference with infant-mother interaction could moderate the interspecific trait of response to CO2 through genetic control of sensitivity to the environment. Methodology: Having spent the first 24 hours after birth with their biological mother, outbred NMRI mice were cross-fostered to adoptive mothers for the following 4 post-natal days. They were successively compared to normally-reared individuals for: number of ultrasonic vocalizations during isolation, respiratory physiology responses to normal air (20%O2), CO2-enriched air (6% CO2), hypoxic air (10%O2), and avoidance of CO2-enriched environments. Results: Cross-fostered pups showed significantly more ultrasonic vocalizations, more pronounced hyperventilatory responses (larger tidal volume and minute volume increments) to CO2-enriched air and heightened aversion towards CO2-enriched environments, than normally-reared individuals. Enhanced tidal volume increment response to 6%CO2 was present at 16-20, and 75-90 postnatal days, implying the trait's stability. Quantitative genetic analyses of unrelated individuals, sibs and half-sibs, showed that the genetic variance for tidal volume increment during 6%CO2 breathing was significantly higher (Bartlett χ = 8.3, p = 0.004) among the cross-fostered than the normally-reared individuals, yielding heritability of 0.37 and 0.21 respectively. These results support a stress-diathesis model whereby the genetic influences underlying the response to 6%CO2 increase their contribution in the presence of an environmental adversity. Maternal grooming/licking behaviour, and corticosterone basal levels were similar among cross-fostered and normally-reared individuals. Conclusions: A mechanism of gene-by-environment interplay connects this form of early perturbation of infant-mother interaction, heightened CO2 sensitivity and anxiety. Some non-inferential physiological measurements can enhance animal models of human neurodevelopmental anxiety disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere18637
JournalPLoS One
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)

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    D'Amato, F. R., Zanettini, C., Lampis, V., Coccurello, R., Pascucci, T., Ventura, R., Puglisi-Allegra, S., Spatola, C. A. M., Pesenti-Gritti, P., Oddi, D., Moles, A., & Battaglia, M. (2011). Unstable maternal environment, separation anxiety, and heightened CO2 sensitivity induced by gene-by-environment interplay. PLoS One, 6(4), [e18637]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0018637