These findings demonstrate that the brain uses stress experience during early life to prepare and optimize for subsequent challenges.
Jaideep Bains, PhD, and colleagues were able to show the existence of unique time windows following brief stress challenges during which learning is either increased or decreased.
By manipulating specific cellular pathways, they uncovered the key players responsible for learning in stress circuits in an animal model.
"These new findings demonstrate that systems thought to be 'hardwired' in the brain, are in fact flexible, particularly early in life," said Bains, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.
"Using this information, researchers can now ask questions about the precise cellular and molecular links between early life stress and stress vulnerability or resilience later in life," he added.
Stress vulnerability, or increased sensitivity to stress, has been implicated in numerous health conditions including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and depression. Although these studies used animal models, similar mechanisms mediate disease progression in humans.
"Our observations provide an important foundation for designing more effective preventative and therapeutic strategies that mitigate the effects of stress and meet society's health challenges," he said.
Their discoveries have been published in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience, one of the world's top neuroscience journals.