Both the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) play an important role in the negative feedback regulation of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity during physiologic and behavioral stress. Moreover, chronic behavioral stress is known to affect the morphology of CA3c pyramidal neurons in the rat, by reducing total branch number and length of apical dendrites. In the present study, we investigated the effects of behavioral stress on the mPFC, using the repeated restraint stress paradigm. Animals were perfused after 21 days of daily restraint, and intracellular iontophoretic injections of Lucifer Yellow were carried out in pyramidal neurons of layer II/III of the anterior cingulate cortex and prelimbic area. Cellular reconstructions were performed on apical and basal dendrites of pyramidal neurons in layer II/III of the anterior cingulate and prelimbic cortices. We observed a significant reduction on the total length (20%) and branch numbers (17%) of apical dendrites, and no significant reduction in basal dendrites. These cellular changes may impair the capacity of the mPFC to suppress the response of the HPA axis to stress, and offer an experimental model of stress-induced neocortical reorganization that may provide a structural basis for the cognitive impairments observed in post-traumatic stress disorder.
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